President Donald Trump’s push for major cuts to research funding in the U.S. are fueling even closer scientific ties between Canada and its southern neighbour. Preliminary talks have begun between the U.S. National Science Foundation and research funders in Canada to kickstart new research collaborations in quantum computing, the brain, biodiversity and the Arctic.
Recent meetings held in both Ottawa and Washington are expected, as a first step, to result in a Dear Colleague letter from the NSF encouraging its researchers to identify opportunities for joint projects the rapidly evolving field of brain research. Similar Dear Colleague letters have been developed between the NSF and Japan (big data); Brazil (cybersecurity), European Union (Graphene and 2D Layered Materials and Devices) and Canada (Arctic research).
America’s long history of scientific collaboration with Canada has been largely driven by individual investigators with established relationships, with few examples of top-down coordination at the political or granting agency levels.
That began to change earlier this year with Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, which if approved by Congress would see deep cuts at the NSF, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and other science agencies. The president has proposed cutting the NSF’s budget by US$776 million, or 11% and the NIH’s budget by about a fifth, or US$5.8 billion.
The agencies won a temporary reprieve April 30 when Congress ignored the president’s proposal and passed a US$1-trillion spending deal that sees funding for science stay flat or even increase for the remainder of the 2017 budget year. However, there’s no guarantee science budgets will be maintained or increased in 2018.
As such, the NSF has begun drafting contingency plans in the event those cuts go ahead. Closer research ties with Canada are considered a top priority.
“With a budget like this we’re focusing even more on international partnerships because we need to have others bring money and resources to the table,” says Dr. Rebecca Keiser, head of the NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering. Keiser was in Ottawa attending the annual meeting of the Global Research Council.
“For instance, it makes sense to think about working with Canada in quantum science because Canada is investing a billion dollars in this area.”
Boost international cooperation: Naylor Report
The Canadian government is currently considering its response to recommendations from the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science. The Naylor report recommended that Canada’s tri-council research agencies and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) develop multi-agency strategies to support international research collaborations and modify existing funding programs to strengthen international partnerships
Dr. Martha Crago, a member of the Naylor panel, says the political disruptions occurring in the U.S. and the UK are opening new opportunities for collaborating with Canada.
“At high levels there seems to be an appetite for increasing international collaborations,” says Crago, VP research and innovation at McGill University. “I think we’re in an inflection point … in terms of how countries are thinking about their relation to other countries, but it’s very important that at the science level we stay collaborative.”
Crago is confident that researcher-to-researcher collaborations will weather the political storms, but stressed that an overarching structure and more funding is needed to strengthen and expand those bilateral partnerships. “It’s suboptimal right now.”
Crago identified three new potential mechanisms for international research collaboration: sharing equipment costs; joint funding programs, including joint supervision of graduate students; and connecting research centres.
“We have some examples of shared infrastructure and very expensive equipment but we haven’t really tackled this as a systematic change,” says Crago. “CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation) has always made the case that with their funding formula, 40%, 40% and 20% from industry, that the other 40% (traditionally contributed by provinces) could be met by other countries. We could do some very interesting things in terms of shared equipment, notably for Arctic research, but it requires some really good coordination between countries, researchers and funders.”
Keiser says collaborative opportunities with Canada are being identified, including quantum science and biodiversity research, as well as infrastructure sharing.
“We are talking to (CFI) about future collaboration, particularly related to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). It’s a series of towers that we have around the U.S. that collect ecological information and we would love to see if additional towers could be built in Canada.”
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as well as a Q&A with Rebecca Keiser.