Federal government to defund Networks of Centres of Excellence

Longstanding program has provided U of T with over $115 million since 1989

Federal government to defund Networks of Centres of Excellence

A 30-year-old federal funding program that has invested around $2 billion in scientific research, commercialization, and knowledge translation across Canada will be discontinued and phased out over the next three years, according to an announcement from Science Minister Kirsty Duncan last month. 

Lauded for increasing collaboration among scientists, researchers, and manufacturers, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) is widely considered to be the catalyst for innovative world-renowned research that has established Canada as a global leader in science. 

Since its conception in 1989, the NCE has helped train more than 48,000 personnel, created 147 spin-off companies, and sponsored 1,332 startup companies with the goal of addressing challenges in Canada’s social and economic spheres. 

According to Vivek Goel, U of T Vice-President Research and Innovation, “The NCE program has helped support many cross-disciplinary research projects [at U of T] that brought together researchers from across the country to address pressing challenges.”

From student scholarships to startup seeds, U of T has benefitted from the variety of resources offered by 44 participating NCE organizations. The Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) in particular has supported the launch of three successful companies with U of T connections: BlueRock Therapeutics, ExCellThera, and Avrobio. 

“Our host is [the] University of Toronto, so we have a special and deep relationship with U of T,” said Michael May, CEO of CCRM and U of T alum. “We also attract companies from around the world to work in Toronto — to help advance their own initiatives and expertise. And facilities at the University of Toronto and other institutions in Ontario are important for attracting those anchor partners.”

Although the cancellation of NCE funding for CCRM — and by proxy U of T — makes it more difficult to translate research into commercial goods, both institutions have multiple sources of funding and can continue to function according to May. 

“A lot of government funding is on projects, and the NCE funding for us was building a platform, on building an ecosystem and a very specialized team with facilities to actually drive technology forward,” said May. 

“Our connection and partnership with the University of Toronto and other institutions goes beyond one source of funding and it involves lots of people, researchers and companies. It will not affect our relationship with U of T. It just makes it harder for us to achieve our common mission of getting product from the good research that happens.”

Less than one per cent of U of T’s total research funding in 2016–2017 came from the NCE. However, for U of T’s partner organizations that fund students at U of T and are solely funded by NCE, the funding decision could be disastrous and potentially slow progress in important scientific fields.

“If we’re successful in our renewal this summer… and we get the final three years [of research funding], at the end of those three years, our program will be shut down,” explained Alex Mihailidis, principal investigator and joint Scientific Director of AGE-WELL at the Toronto Rehab Institute. AGE-WELL is an NCE-funded organization that seeks to help older Canadians maintain their quality of life through the creation of innovative technologies and services.

In light of the cuts, Mihailidis said, “Our researchers will now have to start applying to the usual programs that already exist, that historically have very poor acceptance rates or success rates.” 

“We fund a number of researchers and students at U of T. So obviously that money will be lost, we will not be able to support great research that is happening there.”

Although the federal government has announced a replacement program, the New Frontiers in Research Fund, there is growing criticism of the decision to abandon the network model. 

“What we’ve done is that we have brought the community together,” said Mihailidis. “I know what the landscape was like before AGE-WELL. We were all trying to do our own things, we weren’t working well together, we were not getting industry involved, we were not getting older adults themselves involved in research, which is so critical and AGE-WELL was able to do that.”

“We were able to bring all these pieces together into one cohesive network working together towards the common goal,” said Mihailidis.

“It worries me if [the program is] not replaced with a strategy of coordinating good academic research in institutions with vehicles like CCRM that translate them and commercialize them,” said May. “By stopping the funding and having a number of new disconnected funds be proposed… I just don’t see the productivity. I don’t see the coordination. I worry about that strategy.”

U of T alum David Lametti new Attorney General in cabinet shuffle

Lametti replaces Jody Wilson-Raybould

U of T alum David Lametti new Attorney General in cabinet shuffle

In the latest cabinet shake-up on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Montréal MP and University of Toronto alum David Lametti as Attorney General and Minister of Justice, replacing Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Lametti, who graduated from U of T with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science in 1985, was promoted from his role as Parliamentary Secretary to Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous person and third woman to hold the position, was moved to a different portfolio as Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.

The shake-up is the last one expected before the federal elections in fall 2019.

Lametti is a former law professor at McGill University. He has represented the riding of LaSalle—Émard—Verdun since 2015.

Federal budget’s $3.2 billion investment is a win for science

More research funding means more student research opportunities

Federal budget’s $3.2 billion investment is a win for science

On February 27, the Liberal government announced the federal budget, which includes a $3.2 billion investment in scientific research over the next five years.

A fund of $1.7 billion will go toward research granting councils — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — and $1.3 billion will be used to fund overhead expenses like research infrastructure, laboratories, and supplies.

Additionally, the budget proposes the formation of a new tri-council fund that will spearhead research that is internationally and interdisciplinarily based.

This large investment was driven considerably by the Naylor Report, Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, led by U of T President Emeritus David Naylor and commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan in 2016. The Naylor Report outlined 35 recommendations for the government to implement in order to better support scientific endeavors, including a $1.3 billion increase for research granting councils by 2022.

Though Budget 2018 does not meet all criteria outlined by the Naylor Report, it is evident that the government listened to scientists and took note of the Support the Report campaign led by U of T last year.

“The government did send a very positive signal to the scientific community, and provided for increased and longer-term stability to research funding going forward,” said Bryan Stewart, Vice-Principal of Research at UTM. “This is very welcome news.”

According to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, this investment is the single largest in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history. Morneau also said that the investment will help spur new industries and careers in Canada.

“Federal research grants have a huge impact on any individual researcher’s ability to supervise and train students of all levels,” said Stewart. “Any uptick in research funding will allow for more student research opportunities, and unfortunately, any downturn in research funding has the opposite effect.”

Additionally, the government plans to invest $210 million over five years in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program. This CRC investment also aims to support talented early-career researchers and diversify its nominees to include more female researchers and researchers from underrepresented groups.

Only 28 per cent of Research Chairs at major universities are women, and they are typically at the bottom of CRC’s funding tiers. The budget aims to address federal sector gender pay inequity through proactive legislation. On average, a woman earns $0.87 for every dollar a man earns.

The budget also addresses inclusivity: $25 million has been allotted to support Indigenous research and researchers from minority groups so that they are better represented.

“Fundamental research explores the basis for why things are, and applied research tends to focus on how to use fundamental knowledge to make things work,” explained Ulrich Krull, the Principal of UTM. “Economic impact is largely tied to success in making things work, but this has no traction unless there is understanding of what needs to be done and there are skilled people available to creatively solve problems.”

While the reaction to the scientific funding allocation of this budget has been overwhelmingly positive, some have criticized the government’s inattention to the slow return on investment correlated with fundamental research, calling the investment an unwise way to spend tax dollars.

Funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research program has not been renewed and will end this year. This lack of funding will halt progress on research in the Arctic.

Despite concerns and a few gaps, Canada’s scientific community has rejoiced over the budget and that the government listened to the community’s concerns over lagging research and funding for investigator-led fundamental research.

“Overall, this budget sends a clear signal that the federal government understands that universities have a unique positioning to drive social, economic and cultural growth,” said Krull.

A prime minister for progress

Reflections on Trudeau’s promises to science

A prime minister for progress

It was already dark out on October 19, 2015 when Justin Trudeau took to the stage amid thunderous adulation in the Liberal Party headquarters. With the eyes of millions of Canadians on the newly-minted Prime Minister, he promised that, in Canada, “better is always possible.”

Since that night, numerous groups have debated whether a better Canada has indeed become our reality. For the scientific community, the election of Trudeau, following nearly a decade of silencing and suppression under the Harper administration, was the dawn of a brighter era. It is undoubtable now at the halfway point of his mandate that Trudeau has been a far better friend to scientists than Stephen Harper ever was.

Trudeau’s support for the scientific method and those who practice it is no recent development either. In the announcement of his intention to run for Liberal leadership in 2012, he stated that “the only ideology that must guide us is evidence. Hard, scientific facts and data. It may seem revolutionary in today’s Ottawa, but instead of inventing the facts to justify the policies, we will create policy based on facts.”

As an aspiring scientist, it is easy for me to praise Trudeau as a progressive champion for science in light of Harper’s clampdown, but what has Trudeau accomplished in cold, hard fact?

Acknowledging Trudeau as a breath of fresh air for scientists is not simply a hyperbolic partisan claim. Of utmost importance to scientists was Trudeau’s immediate reversal of the Harper government’s policy forbidding federally-funded scientists and other government officials from speaking to the press and public without legal hoops to jump through and permissions to obtain. There was also the restoration of the mandatory long-form census, to the hearty approval of social scientists everywhere.

However, the lack of suppression is not quite the same thing as progression. What precisely has Trudeau done beyond simply not hampering the efforts of scientists?

Most obvious and appreciable are the appointments made under Trudeau’s administration. As promised, the federal government created the non-partisan position of Chief Science Advisor and filled it with University of Ottawa’s Dr. Mona Nemer this past September. This was followed by the installation of Julie Payette this October — astronaut, engineer, and businesswoman — as Canada’s 29th Governor General.

The inclusion of scientists and other high-achieving people in government, however powerful their roles may actually be, demonstrates that the government is not simply paying lip-service to those who want experts contributing to the decision-making process.

Similar appreciation should be shown for the series of investments made by the federal government into research and green technology. With the $800-million-promise to a new Innovation Agenda fulfilled, the Liberal government has made it clear that they value the expansion of Canadian industries supported by science. Likewise, a number of environmentally-friendly decisions like the cancellation of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the restoration of federal funding into ocean and freshwater research demonstrate a commitment to evidence-based policies.

From the above, it is clear that the realms of science and innovation were not mistaken to place their trust in Trudeau. But, in the spirit of empirical science, it is important to judge the administration not only on its successes, but on its failures as well.

There are several decisions and policies that I would call technical failures, where Trudeau made promises for science innovations but did not fully carry through with these promises. An example is the $50 million dollars given to the Industrial Research Assistance Program when $100 million was promised. Others, like the incomplete repeal of the ban on blood donation for LGBTQ men, appear only to be negotiated variants of original promises.

With all of this in mind, I find it is easy to conclude only one thing about the Prime Minister with certainty. Although Trudeau is a vast improvement on Harper with regard to science, he is not the torch-bearing messiah of science that some had hoped him to be, and that perhaps was implied during his campaign.

Yet total pessimism is undue. In the past two years Trudeau has clearly delineated his position as a supporter of scientific progress in Canada, with only the degree to which he is dedicated in question. In a world where anti-intellectualism is becoming increasingly prevalent in democratic governments, scientists — and the public alike — should be thankful for the leadership we have, despite its flaws.

When partisanship overshadows equality

Twisting 'Elbowgate' into a gendered incident holds true feminist issues in contempt

When partisanship overshadows equality

Few proceedings in the House of Commons have influenced public discourse as much as the May 18 events. During a regular sitting of the House with an impending vote on assisted dying legislation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossed the aisle to pull Conservative Whip Gord Brown toward his seat, in an effort to speed up the beginning of the vote. In the process, Trudeau elbowed New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament (MP) Ruth-Ellen Brosseau in the chest. Outcry from members, extensive media coverage, and the public’s response have led to this event being dubbed ‘Elbowgate.’

Many individuals, including prominent NDP MPs, have made the claim that elbowing Brosseau and subsequently causing her to miss the vote was by nature a gendered issue. Some went so far to say that Trudeau’s actions were reminiscent of instances of violence against women, and that he made the House of Commons an unsafe space for women to work.

Trudeau’s elbowing of Brosseau was, by all means, rude and unnecessary. It showed the Prime Minister’s impatience for proceedings to begin and his entitled attitude within the House. However, calling it misogynistic or anti-feminist misses the lack of intent on Trudeau’s part to harm Brosseau. It dismisses and overshadows his intentional actions towards Brown. Worst of all, it detracts from instances of actual violence towards women and the inequality they do often face at home and in the workplace.

The video of the proceedings shows that Trudeau was only attempting to physically pull Brown towards his seat. It shows that the contact made with Brosseau was almost certainly accidental, because Trudeau’s aim was to get Brown in his chair and to start the vote.

Fixating on Trudeau’s treatment of Brosseau discounts the lack of decorum the Prime Minister exhibited toward Brown and the entire Parliamentary voting process. It overshadows the deliberate breach of physical barriers towards an opposition member — Brown, not Brosseau. Viewing Trudeau’s actions through a gendered lens has detracted from his actual wrongdoing of attempting to physically coerce an opposition whip.

Physical violence in the workplace, in any context, is unequivocally wrong. That being said, Trudeau was immediate and clear in his apology to Brosseau, stating that he did not mean to harm her and that the physical harm committed against her was entirely accidental. It was clear from the video and Trudeau’s subsequent actions that the intent to harm Brosseau was not present.

On the other hand, Trudeau’s reluctance to apologize to Brown may indicate that he felt justified in those deliberate physical actions. The bulk of Trudeau’s actions were targeted against a male member of Parliament, which a gendered approach to the situation overlooks.

Hyper-partisan comparisons like those made by NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Brigitte Sansoucy — which linked Trudeau’s accidental elbowing of Brosseau to workplace and domestic violence — serve only to trivialize the severity of problems faced by hundreds of thousands of women in this country.

Treating the physical harm done to Brosseau as more newsworthy and malicious than that done to Brown perpetuates the stereotype that women are inherently weaker and more fragile — that they should be protected even in settings where they are said to be equal.

Portraying women as victims in situations is not the solution to equality. It may increase public attention towards these issues, but it also creates a plethora of long-term problems, stemming from the fact that the differential treatment of women, once again, takes the idea of equality out of the picture.

Linking problems of gendered violence to an accidental and highly-publicized case is unacceptable. It redirects attention away from the struggles of actual victims of gendered violence and the platform they have to express the issues they go through. While partisan uproar over the incident delayed proceedings, Teta Bayan, a temporary foreign worker making a living as a nanny, lost the opportunity to speak on behalf of thousands of others in her position, in the hopes of improving working conditions.

By using Elbowgate as a gendered chit against the Prime Minister, the NDP has set themselves back further from their goal of achieving equality. Hyper-partisan comparisons like those made by NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Brigitte Sansoucy — which linked Trudeau’s accidental elbowing of Brosseau to workplace and domestic violence — serve only to trivialize the severity of problems faced by hundreds of thousands of women in this country.

Equally harmful are the partisan-fuelled assertions that Trudeau’s actions toward Brosseau discount his claims of being a feminist and invalidate the efforts he has made to promote the equality of women within the political sphere, like instituting a gender-equal cabinet. Both types of partisan statements serve to create the precedent that women’s issues should be sensationalized when necessary, rather than treated with care, legitimacy, and respect.

Yes, Trudeau’s actions were rude and lacking in decorum. However, viewing the issue through a gendered lens for partisan purposes works against the federal government’s shared goal: equality for women in the workplace and all other spheres.

Daryna Kutsyna is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying International Relations and History. She is the president of Equal Voice U of T; the views expressed here are her own.