The Innovation Gap and the Problem with Research Funding in Canada

December 15, 2011

While concerns about Canada’s innovation gap have become cliché, too often these observations ignore the elephant in the room: funding for Canadian Researchers is based on a broken funding system. We hope to re-ignite a longstanding conversation in Canada about how to better use limited research dollars to support more Canadian researchers in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Central to this conversation is the academics themselves.

We argue that the existing model wastes money and time and creates motivation problems for the next generation of researchers; that the peer review system undermines innovation and creative thinking; and the existing system hinders the kind of diverse expertise required to benefit Canadian society and advance its industries.

On the first point, Richard Gordon and his colleague Bryan Poulin have demonstrated how the cost of rejecting a grant now exceeds the cost of giving one for qualified Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) applicants. These costs are not limited to NSERC nor only associated with the time it takes to develop agency-specific proposals. The current system requires that committee members and referees volunteer to review mountains of paper. Reports from the front lines of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) describe a process that is full of vagaries, inconsistencies, and bias. While some critical scholars might suggest the grant process at present is designed to keep academics in line, tethered to their computers and departments, it is more likely that administrative inertia has set in. Either way, at present, researchers are being asked to spend too much time begging for money and not enough doing research.

On the second point, it does seem clear that whatever the benefits of using peer review for journal publications or to assess younger scholars, when applied to research grants the system undermines innovation and creative thinking. This is hardly a new observation. As Donald Fordsyke observes:

…innovative work (because it is new and not yet understood by many people) is more likely to get bad reviews than routine research whose basis is widely accepted; thus there is a strong bias in the "selection" process against innovative research.

Case studies suggest that freedom to pursue one’s ideas leads to the greatest innovations. In the existing system, however, the rewards are few, and”…research funds are literally monopolized by the few who see themselves as the truly excellent researchers according to their own skewed yardsticks.”

Granting councils appear to believe that they are “too big to fail”, that the peer review process cannot be wrong or even briefly mistaken. Appeals are few and nearly impossible to win. Whatever the good intentions of those who serve the existing model, Canadian taxpayers currently fund competitions that provide no explanation for the scores on an application and no justification for a failure that harms an applicants academic career. For example, at present SSHRC provides no raw scores, no notes, and no justification for what should be funded to applicants or Canadian taxpayers. The secrecy that rules over this covert decision making process will be tested this spring as the Federal Court of Canada will be asked to finally and firmly define what sort of feedback is required to failed Doctoral and Postdoctoral applicants.

Third, this unwieldy system is directly responsible for the fact that fewer and fewer academics are getting funded to engage in the research upon which social and technological innovation is based. Despite the variety of other approaches to grant funding that could support more researchers and perhaps double or triple research impacts, the current funding paradigm reigns supreme.

The irony is that anyone with any understanding of science knows it simply is not possible to predict which new ideas may lead to the discovery of penicillin, electricity, or a host of new treatments, processes, and products which many of us rely upon today. Somehow, Canada’s Tri-Councils assume they can. Despite an emerging consensus that the way we organize our system of research grants is broken, the councils continue to soldier on committed to a failed model of research funding. This harms young researchers and hinders the kind of diverse expertise required to benefit Canadian society and advance its industries. For example, Paul Sanborn of the University of Northern British Columbia worries about NSERC policies that undermine the morale of current and potential graduate students. He suggests:

They’re astute and observant enough to see what their professors’ lives are like. Despite our best efforts to shield them from some of this, I’m sure they’re wondering if they have a future in research in this country. And I’m really not sure any more what to tell them.

What can be done to overcome the existing folly of research funding in Canada? We believe there are perhaps three options: reform the system to make it more transparent; make a move toward block funding for promising young researchers based on their work - not the projects they propose; or create a hybrid approach in which those who rank applicants are not the same as those who award the funding.

But no solution is possible without leadership from Canadian academics themselves. One place to start would be a conference on alternative funding mechanisms that could address clearly the challenges of using peer review to award research grants. This might include what metrics should matter, and how we get from where we are to where we need to be and could be modelled on approaches employed to review and revise journal peer review.

In the meantime, we seek to start a conversation among academics and researchers themselves. It does appear that engaging in a process outside of the powerful University system could help spur Canada’s research councils to acknowledge what nearly all researchers all ready know. An online petition, related to the need to reform Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), has led more than 2000 signatories and led to some internal soul searching at CIHR.

The CIHR petition reads, in part:

We wish to express our deep concern about the funding of biomedical research in Canada. Presently the likelihood that an individual grant application will be funded has reached an all time low .... Studies have indicated that the Peer review process is not precise in arriving at final scores.... Our concern is that if we continue to starve the individual grants program we will lose investigators of talent to other countries as they come to see a bleak future for themselves .... We therefore urge the Committee charged with reviewing the status of the CIHR to make it a top priority to assure that there is a mechanism for augmenting and protecting funding for the individual grants program.

Perhaps it is time for social and natural scientists to employ a similar approach to demonstrate just how many of them recognize the problems. It is our hope to better understand to what extent these views are more broadly held. We invite you and all others who have a stake in research and research funding to offer your comments and ideas on the funding system operated by SSHRC. We will do our very best to report your views fairly, whether you agree there are serious concerns over research funding, or not.

The SSHRC feedback form is here:

The NSERC feedback form is here:

Is the existing process serving the interests of researchers, students, and higher education in Canada? We invite you to participate in this conversation, and will use the results of our efforts in an upcoming article in the summer issue of Our Schools / Our Selves.


Dr. Johannes Wheeldon (LL.M, Ph.D) holds degrees from Dalhousie University, the University of Durham, and Simon Fraser University. He worked at AUCC between 2002-2005 and has since worked for the American Bar Association, George Mason University, and the Center for Justice Law and Development. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science and Criminology at Washington State University and teaches Philosophy to inmates at the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center.

Dr. Richard Gordon is a theoretical biologist retiring from the University of Manitoba, was in Biosystems Engineering, Botany, Computer Science, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Pathology, Physics, Radiology and Zoology, and has published on: algal biofuels, breast cancer detection, diatom nanotechnology, embryo physics, grant systems, HIV/AIDS prevention and origin of life.


For more information see:

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