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Agriculture fears being left out of research funding review

By Robert Arnason, The Western Producer

A Nobel Prize winner and a co-founder of Blackberry will be part of an independent panel studying how the federal government supports fundamental science.

Advocates for agricultural re-search agree such a review is needed, but they are worried the nine-person panel may overlook farming and food.

“While we have great people on the panel, we think having another great person that has agricultural background … would have been very relevant,” said Serge Buy, chief executive officer of the Agricultural Institute of Canada, whose mission is “to be Canada’s agricultural research voice.”

Panel members include Mike Lazaridis, Blackberry co-founder, Art McDonald, 2015 Nobel Prize winner in physics and David Naylor, former University of Toronto president.

“The review will assess the program machinery that is currently in place to support science and scientists in Canada,” the federal government said in a news release.

The panel is expected to report its findings in six months.

Stephen Morgan Jones, former regional director with Agriculture Canada’s science and technology branch, said the government spends $3 billion a year to support fundamental science, mostly on research done at universities.

Agriculture research receives a piece of that pie through agencies such as Genome Canada.

Buy said the agriculture and food sector should be represented on the review panel because it contributes about $109 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product.

“Agriculture needs to take its place (at the table). It’s not given its proper space right now, and we’re getting a little bit concerned about this,” he said. “Ottawa is not an agricultural town, but it (food and farming) shouldn’t be ignored.”

Buy hopes the panel considers more than just university research because government scientists, including Agriculture Canada experts, also work on fundamental research.

Recent reductions in government funding have diminished the research capacity at Agriculture Canada, Buy said.

“There have been closures (of research stations) and changes in the various programs.”

The funding model has also affected agricultural research at Canadian universities. Government cutbacks in the 1990s led to a system in which agricultural scientists must find matching funds from private organizations.

Wilf Keller, president of Ag-West Bio, which promotes the bio-?science economy, said the partnership model pushes scientists toward practical, underwhelming projects because industry money is on the line.

“In order to develop a work plan for a consortium, you’re going to have to satisfy all those consortium members,” he said. “(So) you take the lowest level of risk.”

Last year, the Agricultural Institute of Canada released a report on ag research policies, which said the country needs a national body to develop medium- and long-term priorities.

As well, Canada needs to find replacements for a large cohort of senior agricultural scientists who will soon retire.

Morgan-Jones said it would be useful to do a study comparing Canadian agricultural research to other developed countries.

“People have said the Australian system is funding agriculture at a higher level … but I see no quantitative evidence to support that,” he said. “Somebody does really need to look at the international (situation) to see how we stack up.”