The Need for Highly Qualified Staff at Core Research Facilities: An Analogy with Medical Diagnostics

Many universities are developing “core facilities”—i.e., research infrastructure that is open to researchers from across the university and that may be available to outside users as well. Operating core facilities so a wide range of researchers can access specialized research tools is a way to maximize usage of, and potential impact from, infrastructure that often represents millions of dollars in capital.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (Nov 1, 2021)
Image:  Medical radiation technologist examines MRI results. (shutterstock)

To ensure that core facilities can be used effectively by a range of researchers, core facilities need to be supported by highly qualified staff. This is a key difference from other labs that serve only one or a few research groups that specialize in the techniques available in these labs.

Attempts to rely on the part-time efforts of students—a group with a rapid turnover rate—are often not effective to maximize the use of core facilities. I experienced this ineffectiveness firsthand as a graduate student when I received some pointers on how to use a new apparatus from a professor and a student who had used it only once or twice themselves. After several unsuccessful attempts to produce meaningful results, some other students and I diverted our efforts more productively elsewhere. The apparatus, valued at around $500,000, had been funded as part of a multimillion-dollar grant to purchase a set of equipment that, if operated collectively as a core facility, could have been a tremendously valuable resource to students and faculty researchers from several departments in the university. How different would my student experience have been if this apparatus had been offered as part of a “core facility” that had even one technician who was an expert in its operation?

Research infrastructure is sometimes compared to roads, which are built to benefit a wide range of users, from commuters to emergency services. Similarly, research infrastructure is funded by governments so users can conduct research and generate knowledge that will benefit all of society. However, the roads analogy falls short when it suggests that governments can fund research infrastructure once, and then leave it alone with little to no concern for its ongoing operation. This is simply not the case.

Research infrastructure requires expert staff to make sure that users can take full advantage of the research tools on offer. In this respect, research infrastructure is less like roads and more like the medical diagnostic imaging facilities that host MRI machines and CT scanners. These centralized medical facilities are supported by highly trained specialists who aid in the diagnosis of patients by operating the equipment, helping to interpret the results, and providing other essential services like ensuring the equipment is maintained in a state of readiness. Without these trained specialists, the “users” who order the tests (e.g., family doctors and surgeons) cannot effectively diagnose and treat patient illness and disease.

What if governments took a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach to MRI machines and CT scanners? That is, what if family doctors and surgeons were left to operate this highly specialized equipment on their own? Would that be a good use of their time? Most likely, fewer patients would be diagnosed due to doctors’ time constraints. One can also imagine an increase in failed diagnostic tests or wrongly interpreted results. Certainly, the health of patients would suffer.

Universities’ core research facilities can be even more complicated to operate and maintain than medical diagnostic facilities—and a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach is just as ineffective. The faculty researchers who use a core facility are often not experts in the facility’s equipment. These professors and their students would therefore produce more and better results if the core facility was supported with appropriate expertise.

Core facilities lie midway between a single-professor lab and a large-scale national laboratory, such as Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, SNOLAB, the Canadian Light Source, or Canada’s National Design Network. Large-scale research infrastructure requires many scientific and engineering experts to maintain the state-of-the-art equipment, develop new applications of the infrastructure, and foster a community of researchers who can fully exploit the facility to advance Canadian research priorities. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) acknowledges the need for in-house expertise and provides funding for this purpose through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund—but this fund is only for large-scale facilities.

Core facilities are often challenged to cover the costs of essential, highly qualified scientific and technical staff when relying primarily on limited funds from within the university. Inadequate support may be one reason core facilities have been less successful in attracting further investment through the CFI Innovation Fund.

Clearly, there is a role for a research funding mechanism to support the operations of mid-sized core research facilities. With the CFI receiving stable funding beginning in 2023, the door may be open to such a program.

In the meantime, universities may need to make the difficult decision to fully fund their core research facilities’ operations themselves. Those that get ahead of the game by proactively providing their core facilities with adequate staff now will be better able to compete for operating funds in the future when such a competition becomes available. Indeed, facilities that do invest now will be more successful because they will have higher usage rates and higher numbers of successful experiments. What’s more, over time, they will build a stronger track record of research impact.

House of Commons to create new committee on science

Science will get a boost in attention from federal Members of Parliament with a new committee on science and research beginning in the next term of parliament.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (June 6, 2021)
Image: Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan championed the new committee. The Hill Times / Andrew Meade

Former Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan’s motion to create the committee passed the House in late May. Duncan, currently Deputy House Leader of the Government, spoke in the House concerning the need for this committee:

Science and research should have a permanent place where issues that are important to the research community, Canadians and the future of the country can be studied; where scientists, researchers and parliamentarians can come to know one another; where parliamentarians can get a better understanding of science and research; where parliamentarians can learn about Canada’s research strengths in areas such as computer science applications, fuel cells, neurodegeneration, personalized medicine, bioinformatics and regenerative medicine; and where parliamentarians can learn about what is needed to make improvements and yield benefits to Canadians.

Elected representatives need to be able to get informed and up-to-date answers about science issues to make informed decisions—so it isn’t surprising that Canada has tried similar committees before or that they exist in other countries.

The United Kingdom has a Science and Technology Committee for both its House of Commons and its House of Lords. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee defines its purpose as being to “ensure that Government policies and decision-making are based on solid scientific evidence and advice,” and notes that science and technology issues affect many government departments.

In Canada, the creation of a Standing Committee on Science and Research mirrors similar changes in the executive branch of the Canadian government. In the federal civil service, science policy has traditionally been housed within the industry portfolio, most recently named Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada—a mammoth department that oversees a large portfolio of federal agencies. Such a huge department might not be able to give science the focus it deserves. And even if it could, science issues affect most if not all other government departments and activities well beyond innovation, science, and economic development.

As a result, other changes within the federal government have been made to bring science issues to the forefront. For instance, the position of Minister of Science existed in Canada from 2015 to 2019 and elevated the attention on science issues within the executive branch. In 2017, the Minister of Science created the position of Chief Science Advisor of Canada, which now helps to coordinate science issues across departments and can provide advice to any member of Cabinet as appropriate.

Furthermore, in Parliament, science policy can get lost in the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (often simply called the industry committee). In the debates around the motion to create the new Standing Committee on Science and Research, MP Marilyn Gladu pointed out that science issues tend to get treated as lower priority within the industry committee—a committee that is “one of the broadest of all committees. The mandate of the industry committee covers 17 departments and agencies and 36 acts,” as noted by MP Mario Simard in support of the motion.

On the other hand, a committee dedicated wholly to science would, in MP Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay’s words, “ensure that science and research are given all the attention they deserve… and political decisions must be made based on evidence and critical analysis.”

Furthermore, the new committee will align with the relatively new role of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada and may help to entrench this position permanently. This committee will consider all the reports of the Chief Science Advisor, therefore, it will give the Chief Science Advisor a parliamentary forum and opportunity to interact directly with MPs outside of the Cabinet.

Entrenchment is important because such positions can easily disappear. A similar position, the former Office of the National Science Advisor, lasted only one term (2004 to 2008). The Cabinet position of Minister of Science similarly lasted only one term.

Entrenchment of science and research into the permanent fabric of the House of Commons was another theme of MP Duncan’s argument for the new committee:

Science and research are a public good that we must all protect. One of the best ways to protect science is to have a dedicated standing committee in the House of Commons. My friends and colleagues, with this motion, we have an opportunity to do something really important. We have an opportunity to embed science and research into one of our most important democratic institutions and build a better future for all Canadians.

While the Canadian science community must learn from past lessons about how not to engage with such a parliamentary committee (e.g., unidirectional lobbyist activity, etc.), it should welcome the opportunities that the new committee will bring, including increased attention on science and engagement with MPs on important issues that affect the quality of life of all Canadians.

Physics in the 2021 federal budget

The 2021 Federal Budget provides new funding for quantum technology, artificial intelligence, clean energy technologies, life sciences and student internships.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Physicists (Apr. 20, 2021)

Physicists working in quantum research and development are sure to be pleased with $360M announced in the budget to launch a National Quantum Strategy, which aims to amplify Canada’s significant strength in quantum research, as well as related quantum technology and innovation. Others working in photonics may benefit from $90M to retool and modernize the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre at the National Research Council. Those in artificial intelligence will welcome $444M for renewal of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy for 10 years. Notably, over $200M of this amount is for programs that will be delivered by CIFAR.

By far, the biggest new investments in research and innovation this year are in the two areas of clean energy technologies and of life sciences and technologies. Physicists working in clean energy technologies may benefit indirectly from over $5B in new funding invested in the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator. Since this Fund and several other initiatives in the Budget encourage industry to implement projects that support clean energy technologies through this Fund, demand for research that enables these technologies is likely to continue to remain strong.

While COVID-19 has driven the focus on life sciences, not all of the new investments are directly related to the pandemic. Of over $2B in new investments in life sciences, three investments are mostly likely to be of interest to biophysicists: (1) The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will receive $500M for funding of bio-science infrastructure. (2) The tri-councils will receive $250M for a new biomedical research fund. As a tri-council fund, it is clearly positioned to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and physicists working in such collaboration could access these funds. (3) The budget provides $400M for Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy, including $137M for programs delivered by Genome Canada.

In fact, these are the only new funds provided to either of the two agencies that physicists most rely on—the CFI and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)—except for a $47M investment in the NSERC to applied research and development projects led by Canadian businesses in collaboration with colleges, CEGEPs, and polytechnics.

Budget 2021 provides some good news for students and post-docs in research fields. Mitacs will receive over $700M over five years to create at least “85,000 work-integrated learning placements,” through its internship programs that focus on research-based innovation in industry. Students in all science and technology fields could benefit from these on-the-job learning opportunities. The budget also pledges to adjust the tax code to enable post-docs to earn RRSP room on their income.

While these targeted investments may be timely and of strategic value, it is clear that Canada’s Fundamental Science Review in 2017 is no longer driving the budget decisions. This review led to a large focus on science in the 2018 budget. The last budget in 2019 (there was no budget in 2020) made some smaller steps that could be connected back to the Review. The Review recommended a new approach for funding so-called “third-party science and research” organizations, such as Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada, that operate outside the jurisdiction of the granting agencies. Budget 2019 announced that the Minister of Science would create a new “Strategic Science Fund” that would rationalize funding for the growing number of such organizations. However, two years later, no such Strategic Science Fund has been established, and Budget 2021 continues ad hoc investments in Genome Canada and Mitacs. Furthermore, Canada no longer has a Minister of Science to deliver on that commitment.

Relevant excerpts from the 2020 federal budget are provided in the original article.

A step in the right direction for major research facilities

With the recent announcement of $160M to boost funding for “nationally significant” science facilities, Trudeau has continued to position himself as more responsive to the needs of the science community than Harper was.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (May 2019)
Image: CFI-funded national research facilities

Harper closed the Office of the National Science Advisor.

Trudeau began with appointing Kirsty Duncan as a full Minister of Science and mandated her to reinstate a national science advisor role.

Harper invested in industry-motivated research, but scientists in other areas felt under-valued, leading to protests against cutbacks and restrictions on speaking about their research.

Minister Duncan commissioned the Fundamental Science Review to help the government realize its promises to take a different approach to science.

Since the Review reported in 2017, Duncan has been working through implementation of its many recommendations for policy changes and for over $1B per year in funding increases.

Duncan’s announcement last week was the latest implementation, increasing the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s funding share of the operations of seven major research facilities from 40% to 60%.

Major research facilities, such as the research icebreaker pictured on the back of the fifty-dollar bill, provide unique capabilities that are part of a 21st century scientific toolkit.

Since these facilities are too expensive to be used by only a few research institutions, they are shared by hundreds of researchers across Canada, one of the reasons they are considered “nationally significant.”

But Canada lacks a coherent system for overseeing the major funding decisions required for creating and operated them.

As a result, the scientists that need these facilities waste a lot of time and energy on lobbying.

Politicians, in turn, are not qualified to judge the scientific merit of investing $100M in a major telescope compared to a big particle physics experiment.

In fact, sometimes new facilities have been built before the operating funds were found – a recipe for a national embarrassment.

Some major facilities still fall through jurisdictional gaps because no agency is responsible for them.

Such gaps were one factor leading to the loss of Canada’s neutron beam facilities, which relied on the NRU reactor in Chalk River.

Neutron beam facilities are national shared tools used for a wide range of materials research.

For example, researchers use neutron beams to answer questions about Alzheimer’s disease and vitamin E, develop clean energy storage for eliminating vehicle emissions, or improve reliability of our aging pipelines.

All other advanced nations have neutron beam facilities because they are versatile and cannot be replaced by other tools.

When the National Research Council (NRC) was restructured in 2012, operating such a facility for scientists from all over Canada was not aligned with its new mission.

So, NRC divested its neutron beam facility to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, which kept it open for several years, but it had no mandate in this research field beyond the NRU reactor’s closure in 2018.

No agency was left with the responsibility to obtain replacement facilities.

In response, a working group supported by 15 research organizations was formed to lobby the government to establish a new framework for this scientific capability.

The need for lobbying, when scientists would much rather compete with each other on merit, is a symptom of the wider problem that could be solved by collecting the major facilities under one comprehensive oversight process, as the Fundamental Science Review recommended.

The Review’s recommendation parallels the new Strategic Science Fund in Budget 2019, which is for a second set of science organizations that have operated outside normal funding channels: Genome Canada, and Brain Canada, for example.

The Strategic Science Fund collects all these organizations under one competitive funding program in which they will be evaluated by independent experts according to fixed criteria – no more lobbying required.

The increase in funding announced last week signals that the federal government accepts its leadership responsibility for major facilities, and could be a step toward the Review’s recommendation on their oversight.

2019 budget improves governance for ad hoc science organizations

Following landmark investments in the 2018 budget in response to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, anyone who expected major new investments in fundamental science in 2019 was sure to be disappointed. This is not to say there’s nothing to be thankful for – indeed, there are a few additional investments and policy changes that will help students and promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the science community. Since there are no claw-backs to the multi-year increases announced in 2018, many scientists will experience increases to their funding in 2019.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (March 2019)

From a science policy perspective, which is about how science is managed, as well as funded, the biggest change may be one item that had no dollar amount attached.

Budget 2019 announces a “new approach” for funding so-called “third-party science and research.” The Fundamental Science Review defined “third-party science entities” as those operating outside the jurisdiction of NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, CFI. Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada are a few examples.

The Review raised concerns, not with the quality of these organizations’ output, but with how they are each governed as one-offs, via term-limited contribution agreements with ISED. Ad hoc governance arrangements have been needed until now because these organizations don’t fit within the existing programs of the granting councils. Lack of a suitable program required scientists to lobby for funds, rather than participate in peer-reviewed competitions. Over time, the Review warned, this approach could “allow select groups of researchers to sidestep the intensity of peer review competitions, and facilitate unchecked mission drift as third-party partner organizations shift their mandates to justify their continuation.”

The new approach announced in Budget 2019 is to establish a “Strategic Science Fund” that will oversee investments in ISED’s collection of these agencies using a “principles-based framework” based on competitive, transparent processes. The framework will be applied by an independent expert panel to arrive at advice on funding for these organizations. Although the funding decisions will still be made by the Government, this will be a welcome improvement over the vagaries of political lobbying for funds.

There was no funding announced for the Strategic Science Fund. Indeed, no new funding would be needed if the intention is to pool funds from each third-party organization as their respective contribution agreements expire.

The Strategic Science Fund could be a precedent for another portion of the science community that faces similar challenges: so-called Big Science, or Major Research Facilities (MRFs), such as TRIUMF, SNOLAB, Ocean Networks Canada, the Canadian Light Source, and large facilities for astronomy or neutron scattering. In the absence of a systematic means of overseeing Canada’s portfolio of these shared national resources, an array of oversight mechanisms have been created for these facilities on an ad hoc basis, much like the case for third-party research organizations. The Fundamental Science Review was the latest in a string of reports that have pointed problems with this ad hoc approach, stretching back at least 20 years.

Stewardship of Canada’s MRFs has improved following the introduction of the CFI’s Major Science Initiatives Fund in 2012, and the expansion of its mandate to include more facilities under its program in 2014. Nonetheless, there are still many facilities that are not covered by this Fund. No agency has responsibility for the entire portfolio of MRFs to allow it to plan for the creation of new MRFs as others wind-down, or provide predictable funding over the life-cycle of an MRF. Other MRFs still fall through jurisdictional cracks, where no federal agency is clearly responsible for them. Such jurisdictional cracks were one contributing factor in the loss of Canada’s neutron scattering facilities in 2018.

Thankfully, there are indications from organizations such the CFI, ISED and the Office of the Chief Science Advisor that they are collaborating to consider a new approach to managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs. With the leadership that the CFI has taken to fund operations of MRFs so far, and the Government’s commitment to provide much larger and more stable funding for the CFI in 2023 (announced in the 2018 budget), I believe the CFI is best positioned to take on the role of managing Canada’s portfolio of MRFs.

While Budget 2019 might not be remembered for its science investments, it does announce significant policy changes to improve governance of ad hoc science organizations — changes that set a precedent for a coherent and consistent approach to the funding and oversight of Canada’s Major Research Facilities as well.