When it Comes to Funding Research, Value Should Count

October 2005

Last week, 40 of Canada's most respected senior scientists published a letter in the prestigious journal Science. While they praise the federal government's support for scientific research in recent years, they are highly critical of the ever‑increasing requirement for co‑funding research. The principle behind co‑funding is that, for expensive research projects to move ahead, federal dollars must, at minimum, be leveraged by equal investments from third parties, including other governments, philanthropies and corporations. But, as the scientists rightly argue, co‑funding can have significant detrimental effects on science, scientists and all of us who hope to benefit from scientific advances.

The Canadian scientists cite a number of significant consequences of co‑funding. They argue that fundamental research may be ignored in favour of work that is more easily commercialized but scientifically less important. They also claim that the direction of research maybe skewed by the co‑funder, and that long‑term research programs or platforms will fall victim to the contingencies of the short term mindset of many co‑funders. Additionally, they worry that individual scientists and small labs are at a disadvantage when competing for funds with well‑connected scientists or large teams, even when their ideas are better and they would be able to effectively execute the research.

The scientists' most significant 'concern, however, is that science takes a back seat to economics, as scientific peer review of research grants is superseded by prospective financial audit of research contracts. Specifically, they criticize Genome Canada`s recent funding competition that required up to 10 times more detail about money and matching funds than about science and research hypotheses.

The scientists clearly have a point – one that some ethics and science‑policy scholars have made for years: namely, that requiring co-funding of research stacks the deck against all sorts of important, innovative and ingenious research programs in favour of sexy, seductive and saleable research. So what should we do about it?

The Canadian scientists end their letter to Science with the assertion that scientifically excellent research should be funded in full, without requiring matching funds.

If Canada returns to funding research on its scientific merit, they assert, then "the manifold benefits to society will inevitably follow, as was long the case before the advent of co‑funding programs." Would that this were true.

We agree with the problem as outlined by Canadian scientists. We disagree, however, with the proposed solution that rests on too narrow an understanding of scientific merit and of the relationship between sound research and positive social outcomes. Scientific merit includes both scientific validity (excellent science) and scientific value (scientific and social significance). The scientific peer review mechanism only looks at scientific validity, and for this reason we do not advocate a return to the good old days.

We believe we need to direct our limited research dollars to good science, but also to science in the public interest. While scientists can assess questions of scientific validity, neither scientists nor accountants are necessarily good judges of scientific value. This requires different expertise and different review mechanisms than either scientific peer review or prospective financial audit.

There is no doubt that to burden the federal investment in science with the requirement of matching funds is to privilege economic impact over and above other social values of relevance to Canadians: This privileging is problematic because it discounts the prospect for a range of genuinely beneficial social outcomes; but so, too, would a narrow focus on "scientific excellence" alone.