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Canada recommits to basic science

Trudeau government proposes to add $4 billion over five years for research programs

by Sharon Oosthoek
March 9, 2018

Canada is on track for a significant investment in science and research, according to the federal budget proposal announced Feb. 27. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government plans to commit an additional $4 billion Canadian for research programs over the next five years.

Of that $4 billion, $925 million is earmarked for the country’s three main research granting councils in what the government says is “the single largest investment in fundamental research in Canadian history.” The Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council will each get a 25% boost in funding phased in over three years and will subsequently stabilize.

The budget also calls for stable funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which pays for equipment and facilities at research institutions across the country. CFI funding has fluctuated since it was established in 1997. The plan now is to more than double CFI’s budget over the next five years, then stabilize at $829 million annually starting in 2023–24.

Canada's science spending
Chart showing Canada's budget for science programs in 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19.
Prime Minister Trudeau proposes to significantly increase basic research funding starting in 2018-19. Total science and technology funding across the Canadian government was $11,297 million in 2017-18.
a Actual, converted for inflation to 2018 dollars using Bank of Canada calculator on March 8.
b Proposed; figures converted from Canadian to U.S. dollars at the March 8 exchange rate of $1.00 Canadian = $0.78 U.S.

Sources: Statistics Canada, Government of Canada Budget Plan 2018

The 2018 budget’s focus on research was in response to last year’s government-commissioned Fundamental Science Review, which recommended an increase of $1.3 billion in annual funding for the granting councils and CFI to make up for years of underspending relative to other countries. The report, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, highlighted a growing shortfall in science funding after cuts under Stephen Harper’s previous Conservative government.

While the announced boost to science doesn’t meet the $1.3 billion-per-year threshold, the budget makes “important advances on the roadmap developed by the Naylor report,” says Paul Davidson, President of Universities Canada, which advocates for Canadian universities.

Kathleen Walsh, Director of Policy at Evidence for Democracy, calls the budget a historic investment in fundamental research in Canada. She also lauds the government’s proposal to create a new tri-council fund to support research that is “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk.”

In addition to increased funding for the granting councils and CFI, the 2018 budget announced a “re-imagined” National Research Council (NRC), Canada’s federal research and development organization, which focused largely on commercial research under the Harper government. NRC’s new mission will be to “catalyze transformative, high-risk, high-reward research with the potential for game-changing scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs,” the government says. That new mission, however, does not mean a large increase in NRC’s budget, which is slated for a 10% increase to $1.1 billion in 2018–19 and stagnant after that.

The budget also changes the government’s previous focus on large grants for “boutique” research in which a small number of senior researchers head big projects.

“By my calculations, there was significantly less spent on specific projects this year compared to last year,” Walsh says. Ottawa’s 2017 budget, for example, included renewed funding of $6 million in 2017–18 for the Stem Cell Network. The network does not get a separate line item in the new proposed budget.

University of Ottawa ecologist Jeremy Kerr, who has spoken publicly about the need to fund early-career researchers, says he was especially pleased to see Ottawa dedicate an additional $210 million over five years for the Canada Research Chairs Program aimed at younger scientists.

“The government expects these newly appointed early career researchers will be diverse. They’ve written this into the budget,” Kerr says. “It’s a really important message to move the previous status quo which disproportionately saw these chairs going to men, and not very diverse men.”

The Canadian Parliament will debate the full budget proposal over the next few weeks in order to pass a final version before the fiscal year begins on April 1.


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