It’s clear in the recent findings of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review that many ingredients are needed to make that outstanding work possible, from adequate funding and smart infrastructure to the right focus. Also essential, of course, is a supply of top-calibre researchers – and smaller universities have a unique but often underestimated role in developing that talent.
Getting students involved in research sooner
The research lifecycle begins when we light the fire with our undergraduates. One of the key ways smaller institutions help build Canada’s research capacity is by offering undergraduates exceptional opportunities for hands-on work with leading researchers. If Canada’s goal is to build greater research and innovation capacity, such early exposure is vitally important, laying the foundation for career-long research excellence. These experiences also nurture the kind of problem-solving and teamwork skills that today’s employers demand.
We’ve seen this at St. Francis Xavier University many times over, with undergraduates in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, earth sciences, economics and human kinetics taking part in research projects and then going on to become award-winning scholars and organizational leaders across Canada and around the world.
Part of the reason smaller universities are able to provide this kind of experience is the nature of the research that happens on their campuses. It’s investigator-driven, directed by the curiosity and specialization of individual academics. This kind of research is personal, agile and exploratory. It occurs in virtually every discipline including the social sciences, and is very often connected directly to the community, contributing to local economic and social vitality.
One example that leaps to mind is the work of Dr. Lisa Lunney Borden, a professor within StFX’s Faculty of Education and whose on-the-ground research and outreach efforts are inspiring Indigenous youth to develop an understanding of mathematics relevant to their culture. The outcome of this work includes measurable increases in math scores for these students.
A second example is Dr. David Risk, a StFX Earth Sciences professor who, together with his students, has developed a variety of techniques to measure greenhouse gas emissions for the energy sector. The impact of this work is significant because if we reduce methane pollution from the Canadian energy sector by 50 per cent, this would be the equivalent of taking 5.7 million cars off the road.
Ensuring that smaller university research can flourish
A great research ecosystem requires the strengths and expertise of all of Canada’s post-secondary institutions. The Fundamental Science Review acknowledges exactly this in its report, calling not only for a much-needed increase in federal research spending across the board but also a rebalancing of that funding to better support the kind of investigator-driven projects that thrive at smaller universities.
Small universities were an important part of the consultation process and it was gratifying to see our concerns reflected in the final report. Through our input, we stressed that Canada’s smaller universities have been impeded by unconscious bias in peer reviews, by complex fund-matching and partnership requirements, and by the disproportionate allocation of research resources to a limited number of individuals and institutions.
The Fundamental Science Review spoke to all these points. If they are successfully addressed through the government’s response to the report’s recommendations, I believe we will be able to do even more to build up our country’s research capacity.
The report also notes that early-career researchers often struggle in the current funding system, where awards for students and post-doctoral fellows have not kept pace with demand. As smaller universities are home to many of Canada’s top young researchers, we share this concern and welcome the report’s call for funding strategies that balance the needs of researchers at all stages of their careers.
Of course, making recommendations is just the first step. Now it’s up to the government to convert them to policy, ideally guided by an action plan to track its progress in phasing in the report’s key recommendations – and for StFX and other smaller universities across the country to seize the opportunities that result.
Whether located in Antigonish, Lennoxville, Sackville, Wolfville or dozens of other small communities across Canada, our students and early-career researchers need and deserve the increased support called for by the Fundamental Science Review. In implementing the report’s key recommendations, the federal government will help universities of all sizes discover and develop new knowledge and fresh talent. And that, in turn, will build a more innovative, inclusive and prosperous future for all Canadians.
Dr. Kent MacDonald is President of St. Francis Xavier University.