Consensus-building on funding policy

TVB Associates was pleased to support Neutrons Canada in organizing and reporting on a consensus-building event at Canadian Science Policy Conference. This event gathered leaders of Major Research Facilities across Canada, as well as policy experts, science administrators, and researchers.

Attendees deliberated the recommendations of Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System regrading a new funding framework for Major Research Facilities.

The panelists and participating research facility leaders formed a consensus on the essential components of the funding framework and provided a report to government Ministers and civil servants responsible for funding policy for Major Research Facilities and the associated Major Science Initiatives.

Client article:

Read the session report

CFI investments help secure Canada’s Major Research Facilities, but there are winners and losers

A perennial question in Ottawa has been how to provide a consistent, reliable, and rational source of funds for Canada’s Major Research Facilities (MRFs) and other nationally significant research facilities that operate outside of government departments and agencies. MRFs, as defined in Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, include national facilities such as TRIUMF, the Canadian Light Source, and Canada’s National Design Network. Many MRFs rely, or have relied on, ad hoc funding mechanisms, which are often temporary, requiring them to be constantly seeking government assistance through lobbying. 

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (Oct 2, 2022)
Image: A crystallography beamline at the Canadian Light Source. (Canadian Light Source)

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), notably through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund, has greatly improved this situation by offering a fund that provides stability in six-year increments for facilities that are eligible to apply and are successful in its competition. In August 2022, the CFI announced the results of its $628 million competition for the 2023–2029 term of its MSI Fund (analysed below in Table 1).

Another way the CFI has improved funding for nationally significant research facilities is by encouraging multiple local or regional facilities used for similar research to assemble into national facilities. In this way, facilities achieve economies of scale and have a greater impact by serving users across the country. Such Canada-wide facilities are also better positioned to secure operating funds. A few examples:

  • Compute Canada arose as a federation of high-performance computing facilities, which was then funded by the CFI MSI Fund. Compute Canada later “graduated” from the MSI Fund when it was re-created as the Digital Research Alliance of Canada in 2019–2020, and is now funded directly by the Government of Canada via its Digital Research Infrastructure strategy. 
  • Ocean Networks Canada operates two large, cabled ocean observatories in the Pacific Ocean (NEPTUNE and VENUS, which were created separately), as well as several smaller facilities elsewhere along Canada’s northern and western coasts. Ocean Networks Canada received the largest award in the present competition, at $114.8 million.
  • CFI investment in the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN) in 2010 enabled the CRDCN to develop a single, nationwide, secure Wide Area Network facilitated by CANARIE to connect research data centres across the country with Statistics Canada. The CRDCN was then successful in the 2017–2022 MSI competition and received the greatest increase in funding in the 2023–2029 competition, at 80%.  
  • Coalition Publica is a partnership between Érudit and the Public Knowledge Project. In the 2023–2029 competition, the Coalition was awarded a 50% increase over the previous CFI award granted to Érudit operating separately. 

A stable funding source for nationally distributed networks of research facilities can help these networks when the funding sources that created them expire. Two examples from the 2023–2029 competition: 

  • Global Water Futures is a national research initiative resulting from a one-time $78 million Canada First Research Excellence Fund grant. The Global Water Futures Observatories (GWFO) has arisen out of this initiative as an integrated network of water laboratories and instruments that are monitoring aquatic systems across Canada. The GWFO is the largest new facility funded in the 2023–2029 competition, at $15.3 million over the six-year period.
  • The Canadian Glycomics Network, or GlycoNet, is funded by the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) as a “one-stop shop” for developing new carbohydrate-based drugs and diagnostics. As the NCE program has been discontinued, such networks must either evolve to fit other funding mechanisms or shut down. GlycoNet Integrated Services, which is the infrastructure operated by GlycoNet and used by glycomics researchers across Canada, was successful in the 2023–2029 MSI competition and awarded $10.7 million. 

Tough to gain entrance to the MSI Fund, with high stakes for incumbents

The MSI Fund was not designed to meet all of Canada’s needs for investment in such facilities. Yet in the absence of any other funding source intended to support the operation of large research infrastructure, many MRFs and other nationally significant research facilities are left with no choice but to apply to the MSI fund knowing that many applications will be denied.

The recent MSI Fund competition is a reminder of how heavily oversubscribed the Fund is. The funds available through the 2023–2029 MSI competition were essentially the same as those available in the previous competition after adjusting for inflation and the change from a five-year term to a six-year term. Since only one of the incumbent facilities “graduated out” of the Fund—the former Compute Canada—many applicant facilities were sure to be disappointed. In fact, the CFI qualified 34 facilities and invited all of them to submit a full application; only 19 of these facilities received funding. (The number of facilities in need of operating funds, which tried to apply but were not deemed qualified to submit a full MSI application, has not been published.)

For facilities that are already part of the MSI club, it is a high-stakes game intensified by the oversubscription rate. CFI MSI funds often comprise a huge portion of a facility’s requisite funding, typically covering 30–40% of its operating costs (and up to 60% in some cases). Moreover, the MSI funds are often a majority of the facility’s operating cash, since many partners provide in-kind contributions only. Loss of MSI funding would be a devastating blow in most cases. 

Fortunately for those previously funded facilities, incumbents do have some advantages in the competition. Selection criteria such as effective and efficient user access, governance that includes long-term strategic planning in consultation with a user community, and best practices in management all favour facilities that have previously enjoyed the funding required to establish and continuously improve their practices in these areas over time. The CFI rightly boasts that its MSI Fund has helped its funded facilities improve in such areas

It is not surprising, then, that of the 16 incumbent facilities that reapplied in the 2023–2029 competition, 13 were awarded funds. In fact, the three biggest incumbent facilities increased their collective share from 47% in the previous term to 50% in the 2023–2029 term: Ocean Networks Canada ($114.8 million), SNOLAB ($102 million), and the Canadian Light Source ($97.2 million). A further two facilities were incumbents from an earlier MSI term (the 2014–2016 round), and though they had lost their MSI funding for 2017–2022, they have now rejoined the MSI club for 2023–2029: these two are the Advanced Laser Light Source ($3.4 million) and the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics ($9 million; previously funded as the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario). 

The only four facilities completely new to the MSI club are all on the smaller end of the size spectrum of funded facilities, together representing only 7% of awarded funds:

  • The Global Water Futures Observatories ($15.3 million)
  • IISD Experimental Lakes Area Inc. ($11.7 million)
  • GlycoNet Integrated Services ($10.7 million)
  • Wind Engineering, Energy and Environment Research Facility ($3.9 million)

So, who still needs operating funds?

Three incumbent facilities reapplied but were not awarded funds for 2023–2029: 

  • CMC Microsystems, which operates Canada’s National Design Network, provides over 10,000 researchers across Canada with critical technology services for designing and manufacturing microsystem and nanotechnology prototypes. This is essential infrastructure for research and development programs in areas that have a high impact on Canadian industry and economic growth, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, microelectronics, photonics, and microelectromechanical systems. 
  • The Centre for Phenogenomics, which provides researchers with a comprehensive set of infrastructure and expertise for research that requires mouse models. This facility enables Canadian research that is essential for life sciences and the development of new drugs and medical equipment. 
  • The Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy, which provides best-in-class electron and ion microscopes to over 500 users every year. Such microscopes are vital tools to study and develop new materials to solve technology challenges in areas such as clean energy, green manufacturing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and health. 

If these facilities cannot adapt and find other funding, the potential impact of their loss on Canadian R&D will be enormous. 

The award to the Canadian Light Source (CLS) is an outlier in the 2023–2029 competition results. It is the only facility to be awarded a much decreased amount of funding, although the official statement from the University of Saskatchewan does not hint at a cut. The CLS is by far the largest MSI-funded facility and was awarded $137.5 million in 2017–2022—nearly a quarter of available funds in that competition. The CLS’s MSI award in the present competition dropped to $97.2 million, and if that award is intended to last the full six-year term, it would amount to a 40% cut. (I say “if” because the CFI can award amounts for periods shorter than the full term.) Notably, the CLS has not stopped ramping up toward maximum capacity since it opened in 2004. Has it now outgrown the MSI Fund? Has another source of funds been identified for it? Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that the CLS will need another injection of funds from somewhere else to continue operating at current levels serving over 1,000 scientific and industry users every year as a national user facility. 

There were 12 applicant facilities that have never received MSI funds, and after being deemed eligible for funding and invited to submit a full application, were still not awarded any. These include the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which only needs about $1.5 million per year but has struggled to find a stable funding source since the federal government’s decision in 2010 to discontinue funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. 

This group of applicants also includes the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR). The MNR has been of increasingly vital importance to Canadian health, science, and technology since the 2018 closure of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, as it is now Canada’s only major research reactor. The MNR has for many years operated fully on its commercial revenues, serving research and education purposes only as far as such revenues have allowed. Now, Canada needs the MNR to expand its operations to act as national research infrastructure, but a source of funds appropriate to this mission must be found. The MNR and its associated nuclear facilities at McMaster University are essential for medical research based on radioisotopes and for nuclear power and safety research. The MNR is also essential to the National Neutron Strategy—Canada’s strategy to rebuild capacity for materials research with neutron beams following NRU’s closure. Neutron beam users secured the largest investment in the 2020 CFI Innovation Fund competition to build up the neutron beam laboratory at the MNR and invest in foreign partnerships to gain access to essential research capabilities no longer available in Canada. The National Neutron Strategy envisions a neutron beam infrastructure program consisting of both domestic facilities and participation in major neutron sources abroad, at a cost of $20 million per year to be managed by a single organization that is now being created: Neutrons Canada. This scale and scope will place Neutrons Canada among other MRFs—provided it can secure the necessary funding. 

But where will the operating funds for MRFs like the Canadian Light Source and Canada’s National Design Network come from, if not from the MSI Fund? 

From where will funds come to enable emerging facilities to rise to the challenge of serving as national research infrastructure, if not from the MSI Fund? 

CFI MSI 2023–2029 Results by the Numbers

Table 1. Successful and unsuccessful applicants to the CFI MSI Fund for 2023–2029. The percent change accounts for the difference in the number of years in the term of each MSI Fund competition (i.e. five years in 2017–2022 versus six years in 2023–2029). Increases or decreases deemed large, considering the effect of inflation, are highlighted in green or red respectively. Source: Canada Foundation for Innovation data; analysis by TVB Associates.

StatusFacilityCurrent Award ($M)Previous Award ($M)Change
Renewed from 2017–2022Ocean Networks Canada114.883.6+14%
Renewed from 2017–2022SNOLAB102.076.4+11%
Renewed from 2017–2022Canadian Light Source Inc.97.2137.5-41%
Renewed from 2017–2022Canadian Research Icebreaker Amundsen54.943.5+5%
Renewed from 2017–2022Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization53.932.5+38%
Renewed from 2017–2022Canada’s Genomics Enterprise48.943.4-6%
Renewed from 2017–2022Ocean Tracking Network38.527.1+19%
Renewed from 2017–2022Canadian Cancer Trials Group Operations and Statistics Centre19.512.5+30%
Renewed from 2017–2022Canadian Research Data Centre Network17.58.1+80%
Renewed from 2017–2022Coalition Publica10.45.7+52%
Renewed from 2017–2022The Metabolomics Innovation Centre8.37.5-8%
Renewed from 2017–2022The André E. Lalonde Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility for Environmental Radionuclides5.83.9+24%
Renewed from 2017–2022SuperDARN Canada2.62.1+3%
Returned from 2014–2016Centre for Biodiversity Genomics9.02.2+109%
Returned from 2014–2016Advanced Laser Light Source3.41.5+14%
Unsuccessful incumbentCanada’s National Design Network (CMC Microsystems)30.6
Unsuccessful incumbentThe Centre for Phenogenomics20.6
Unsuccessful incumbentThe Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy5.8
Did not reapplyCompute Canada69.5
Successful new entrantThe Global Water Futures Observatories15.3
Successful new entrantIISD Experimental Lakes Area Inc.11.7
Successful new entrantGlycoNet Integrated Services10.7
Successful new entrantWind Engineering, Energy and Environment Research Facility 3.9
Unsuccessful new entrantBamfield Marine Sciences Centre
Unsuccessful new entrantCanadian Facility for Isotopic and Geochemical Research
Unsuccessful new entrantHealth Data Research Network Canada
Unsuccessful new entrantNational Facility for Research in Prevention, Cure and Rehabilitation
Unsuccessful new entrantCHIME Telescope
Unsuccessful new entrantPan-Canadian Proteomics Centre
Unsuccessful new entrantQuantum Colaboratory
Unsuccessful new entrantSpace Environment Canada
Unsuccessful new entrantsCanadian Longitudinal Study on Aging
Unsuccessful new entrantCanadian Optogenetics and Vectorology Foundry
Unsuccessful new entrantThe McMaster Nuclear Reactor
Unsuccessful new entrantPolar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory

SNOLAB awarded increased operating funds, $102 million over six years, from the Canada Foundation for Innovation

Canadian leadership in inspiring fundamental research just got a boost.

SNOLAB is Canada’s deep underground research laboratory, famous as the location for the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) experiment, which led to the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Canadian Arthur McDonald. Following completion of the SNO experiment, this two kilometre deep lab was expanded to host multiple experiments and relaunched as SNOLAB in 2012. It has since continued expanding and is now an international-scale laboratory hosting more than a dozen experiments conducted by large international scientific teams.

The increased operating funds awarded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Major Science Initiatives (MSI) program are essential to SNOLAB’s expansion and its ability to host the world’s most advanced experiments in astroparticle physics that provide insight into the nature and evolution of the universe. Hosting and participating in these experiments boosts Canada’s scientific reputation, attracts scientific talent and partnerships, and inspires a spirit of discovery, innovation, and collaboration.

SNOLAB has been awarded $102M over six years, up from $76M over 5 years in 2017-2022 (source: CFI awards list). The CFI funds at most 60% of a Major Research Facilities’ operating costs, and the balance must be found from other sources, typically cash funding from provincial governments and in-kind contributions of partners.

What’s more is that this increase came through a heavily oversubscribed competition. The budget for this MSI competition, after adjusting for inflation and some policy changes from the last competition for the 2017 to 2022 term, was essentially flat. Yet the 16 facilities funded previously were competing with 18 other facilities that were trying to get into this MSI fund, were deemed eligible, and were invited to apply by the CFI.

TVB Associates was pleased to support SNOLAB in its proposal to the CFI MSI Fund by writing and editing core sections of the proposal.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Photo: CFI MSI funding announcement (source: SNOLAB)
Client article: SNOLAB welcomes major federal investment (Aug 19, 2022)

National Proposal for $55M Neutron Beam Infrastructure Project Submitted

Led by the University of Windsor, 18 universities across Canada have submitted a national proposal to the CFI 2023 Innovation Fund for a $55M project for neutron beam infrastructure is an essential contribution to the national neutron strategy. Neutron beams, which complement x-rays, are versatile and irreplaceable probes of materials and are required by a community of 125 Principal Investigators across Canada.

The proposal, entitled “Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering, Phase 2”, is for infrastructure to provide neutron beams for research on materials for (1) clean energy technology, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through innovative battery packs for cars and for wind and solar energy, and through advanced nuclear energy; (2) health and food sustainability, to understand and treat disease or develop new plant-based foods that can replace more resource-intensive animal-based ones; and (3) quantum technology, to lay foundations for breakthroughs in faster information technology devices. It will also enable a radiation therapy that uses neutrons to trigger drugs to emit cell-killing alpha particles inside brain cancers.

Part 2 builds on the McMaster-led national CFI 2020 IF award “Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering” (Part 1). Part 1, a $47M project, is adding neutron beamlines at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor and creating two 6-year partnerships with foreign neutron sources. Part 2 will create further 6-year partnerships so Canadians can access essential and world-leading neutron capabilities. It will also build a prototype neutron source with the potential to make neutron beams much more accessible in Canada in the long term.

TVB Associates was pleased to have a central role in the proposal to the CFI and in parallel proposals to the provinces for matching funds, including developing the strategy, building the national team, project managing its many components, writing applications to proceed through the internal processes of each partner university, negotiating with the foreign partners, and writing the CFI Innovation Fund proposal drawing on the contributions of the many team members and partners.

Alumni of Major Research Facility enjoy accelerated career progression and stay in Canada: TVB study

CMC Microsystems, Canada’s leading hardware technology facilitator, and manager of Canada’s National Design Network® (CNDN), has shared results from its recent study on CNDN alumni, and the training of Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) in Canada.

“CNDN researchers graduate as ‘walking technology transfer,’ bringing a holistic skillset into the marketplace,” writes CMC Microsystems. 

TVB Associates used LinkedIn data to deliver key portions of their study, identifying findings such as:

  • Accelerated career progression: Alumni are about twice as likely to be in executive or management positions within 10 years, and about 25% more likely after 20 years.   
  • Greater employee retention and engagement: CNDN alumni remain with their employers longer than peers who did not use CNDN, and this effect is seen for up to 20 years.  
  • Retention in Canada: Over 70% of CNDN alumni continue to work in Canada for over 20 years in a hypercompetitive, globally integrated marketplace. 

CNDN graduates have collaborated with and worked for over 1,000 Canadian firms from start-ups and scaleups to industry giants in sectors where Canadian innovation is most needed, such has automotive, aerospace, energy and the environment, healthcare, and defence and security. 

More about our alumni studies

An Innovative and Accessible Solution for Measuring Impact on the Training of Highly Qualified People

Client article

Canada’s National Design Network® (CNDN) Prepares Next Generation of Knowledge Economy Leaders (April 12, 2022)

National Neutron Strategy

TVB Associates was pleased to support the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group by writing its national neutron strategy. This strategy has emerged from consultative processes over the past several years as reported earlier. The final strategy was released in March 2022.

This strategy is a basis for the national CFI 2023 Innovation Fund proposal led by the University of Windsor for neutron beam infrastructure, while early versions of the strategy supported the national CFI 2020 Innovation Fund award to McMaster University. Presently, 15 universities are founding Neutrons Canada as the central feature of strategic objective 4.

This strategy also serves as a basis for CINS to develop the Neutron Long-Range Plan (LRP). The Neutron LRP will be a realistic plan for the infrastructure investments needed to implement the national neutron strategy over the next decade and beyond.

Summary of the Strategy

Canada’s social, environmental and economic challenges require a complete twenty-first century scientific toolkit for research and innovation in materials. Because everything is made of materials, innovation in materials underpins nearly all technology advances for national priorities, including:

The strategy identifies four key objectives that are essential to put into place the required infrastructure and governance framework to enable Canadians to use neutron beams:

  1. Forge partnerships with high-brightness neutron sources in other countries;
  2. Build on existing domestic capabilities, including full exploitation of the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR), a medium-brightness neutron source;
  3. Explore and invest in developing new neutron sources for the long term; and
  4. Create a new, national governance and management framework for these activities.

The full strategy is available below.

The national neutron strategy (prepared by TVB Associates)

Founding of Neutrons Canada

In January, 15 Canadian universities met as the Founding Members of a new organization, “Neutrons Canada.” The creation of Neutrons Canada is part of a cohesive, multidisciplinary, national strategy to rebuild Canada’s capabilities for research using neutron beams following the closure of Canada’s primary neutron source, the NRU Reactor in Chalk River, in 2018.

Neutrons Canada will govern, manage, and represent Canada’s infrastructure program for research and development with neutron beams. At the scale required to meet the Canadian demand for neutron
beams, an such infrastructure program is estimated to cost $20M per year. On behalf of its Member institutions, Neutrons Canada will play an essential role in facilitating community activities to secure capital and operating funds for the infrastructure program. It will deliver or support major neutron projects and related initiatives as appropriate.

Neutrons Canada will represent the program as a credible institutional voice to government, as Canada’s agent for contracts with foreign neutron sources, and as a consensus builder among the communities that rely on neutron beams. Coordinating such efforts nationally will be the most effective means to deliver a truly pan-Canadian program that enables the community to speak with one voice.

Applying best practices for the governance and management of Major Research Facilities in
Canada, Neutrons Canada is expected to be launched before the end of 2022 as a not-for-profit corporation with an independent Board of Directors elected by Member institutions that conduct research with neutron beams.

Neutrons Canada arises from the consultative processes of the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group over the past several years, including the January 2020 Roundtable on Neutrons Canada.

TVB Associates is pleased to have a strategic supporting role in the creation of Neutrons Canada.

More information about Neutrons Canada is available in the prospectus prepared by TVB Associates.

Client awarded $14M from provinces, completing funding for $47M national infrastructure project

TVB Associates was pleased to have a central strategic role supporting McMaster University in a national proposal for a $47M project for infrastructure for neutron beams. This project, entitled “Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering”, was supported by 17 universities across Canada, and has been fully funded.

As reported earlier, the Canada Foundation for Innovation awarded its contribution to the project, $14.25M, in March 2021 through its 2020 Innovation Fund competition.

This federal contribution was recently matched by a further $14.05M in provincial funds from the Governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. As the host province, Ontario contributed the largest share at $10.35M. TVB Associates played a critical role in the request to Ontario.

This project will also benefit from $19M in in-kind contributions from McMaster University, Canadian partners such as AECL and the Fedoruk Centre, and foreign partners such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the NIST Center for Neutron Research in the United States, bringing the total project value to $47.3M.

Project Summary

“Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering” is a national project that will enable research and innovation in areas such as materials for clean energy technology, materials for structural integrity of reliability-critical components of vehicles or nuclear power plants, biomaterials for understanding and combating disease, and materials for information technology.

Neutron beams are versatile and irreplaceable 21st century tools for studying materials and are needed by a Canadian research community that includes about 100 principal investigators from over 30 universities. Access to neutron beams is urgently needed following the recent closure of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre and the expiry of Canada’s only agreement for access to a foreign neutron beam facility. Now, the McMaster Nuclear Reactor is Canada’s only major neutron source, and this project will complete its neutron beam lab by adding three neutron beamlines. To enable experiments that require high neutron brightness, the project will build partnerships with two world leading neutron beam facilities in the US.

Potential benefits of the research include technologies to reduced greenhouse gas emissions; enhanced reliability and competitiveness of Canadian nuclear power and auto parts manufacturing industries; knowledge to aid the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and antibiotic resistance; and knowledge of quantum materials that could enable breakthroughs in information technology devices.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Photo: Celebration Cake for funding of “Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering” (Photo by TVB Associates)

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.

Proposals to fund national facilities are more successful, new data shows

Consolidating research infrastructure into national facilities that support large user communities can be an effective use of resources and can enable scientific progress that is often not possible using smaller local facilities (generally referred to as “core” facilities). National facilities play a major role in facilitating cooperation among their user communities, leading to greater coherence as they present opportunities for research investment to funding agencies.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (June 21, 2021)
Image:  Canada Foundation for Innovation. “2020 Innovation Fund: By the Numbers.”

Research communities, such as subatomic physics or astronomy, that collectively prioritize their projects in a strategic or long-range plan are more successful in funding competitions. Projects that have already been evaluated by their communities for importance and feasibility are likely to have high merit—and are likely to appear to have high merit to a reviewer.

Strategic plans can also help secure funding opportunities beyond calls for funding proposals. If a government decision-maker is considering a direct investment in project A, she doesn’t want to be surprised later by a request to fund competing project B, which she didn’t know about. When government decision-makers know that an entire scientific community has agreed on the request, they don’t have to worry about juggling competing requests.

National facilities often play a critical role in enabling the strategic or long-range planning initiatives of a research community. National facilities bring professional perspectives that are complementary to those of their users. Furthermore, they often supply financial and logistical resources for these planning processes. In fact, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) expects all national facilities it funds to have strategic plans already in place because strategic planning for major research facilities is an important part of good governance. Costs associated with hosting planning sessions and meetings to consult stakeholders, hiring consultants for strategic planning purposes, and conducting related communications and outreach activities are all eligible expenses under the CFI Major Science Initiatives Fund.

The support that national facilities provide to the strategic work of the community continues into the development of project ideas and corresponding funding applications. For large applications—proposals to the CFI Innovation Fund, for example—such assistance to develop an application can be invaluable. And the CFI funding data shows this value: In the CFI 2020 Innovation Fund, funding proposals in support of a national facility had a success rate of 47%, compared to the average of 35% (see figure above). Only 28% of proposals from core facilities were successful.

Proposals for research infrastructure that are “in support of” a national facility are typically for infrastructure that the national facility has agreed to host or operate. These proposals in turn will naturally be supported by the facility. For instance, the facility may employ the time of professionals to support communications and outreach to project stakeholders. It may draw on its network of users and partners to help build a strong and diverse project team. It may bring expertise in management and operations to demonstrate the sustainability of a project and a track record of delivering benefits from similar projects. It may also offer support to the applicant team in terms of proposal writing and project management expertise to ease their administrative burden.

In short, proposals in support of national facilities are more successful at securing funding, in part because national facilities help maintain coherence among a broad user community via strategic planning processes, and because these larger facilities provide specialized professional resources to complement the scientific expertise of the applicants.

If you, as a research administrator, are evaluating proposals to support with CFI institutional envelope, consider putting some of your support behind proposals that are part of a coherent national strategy for a research field, and that are being developed with professional support from national facilities. The data shows that this is an effective strategy and will allow you to leverage the substantial investments in these national facilities.