Two cheers from researchers for Canada’s budget

Funding rises for fundamental science with be welcomed even if they fall short of some scholars’ expectations, says Creso Sá

February 28, 2018
Flowers in a test tube
Source: iStock

Canada’s 2018 federal budget, announced on 27 February, will arguably be regarded as a positive step for Canadian science – although not as a big a one as the Liberal government would like it to be.

The budget boasts about making “the single largest investment in fundamental research in Canadian history”, but that is not a claim that will move those whose eyes were focused on the funding recommendations made in last year’s Naylor report.

Hopes were high among scientists and policy pundits that the budget would compensate for the frustrations of last year. The Naylor report’s publication was delayed for several months until after a budget that did not adopt its funding recommendations; that was received as a slap in the face by those endorsing the report’s message that investigator-driven fundamental research needed a boost to overcome ongoing declines.

#SupportTheReport became a rallying cry on social media as many scientists mobilised around the country, organising meetings to drum up support for the report’s message, with a special focus on its funding recommendations. Biomedical and health scientists have been particularly vocal because the squeeze on funding for field-initiated proposals has resulted in steeply declining success rates among investigators reliant on the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

Another element in the build-up of expectations around the 2018 budget was a major announcement earlier in February. The Superclusters Initiative is a C$950 million (£540 million) programme aimed at harnessing innovation from industry-led consortia involving universities. After a long review process, five consortia, conveniently distributed across the country’s major geographical regions, were chosen, in sectors that had been raised by politicians as candidates from the start. But the ambitious promises of job creation and economic impact were vague, and the response to the programme design has been mostly critical, with some commentators questioning the wisdom of such a major funding commitment.

In this context of previous disappointments and suspicion, the budget was welcomed by many scientists. The finance minister, Bill Morneau, explicitly referred to the Naylor report in his address, and that was more than a symbolic gesture. His budget actually addresses many of the issues raised in the report. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure and equipment, got a regular annual allocation, as recommended, to allow better planning and predictability in the support it provides. And an additional C$275 million was allocated over five years to create a “tri-council” programme to encourage interdisciplinary, high-risk or international research, which the Naylor report described as poorly supported by existing funding mechanisms.

In addition, multiple concurrent programmes for university-industry collaboration at CIHR and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) will be streamlined into one scheme at each of the agencies. And new investment in the Canada Research Chairs programme, aimed at attracting and retaining top researchers, will target early career researchers and the notorious under-representation of women.

The budget also brought some big news for non-academic research institutions, which have largely been flying under the radar in science policy debates. The National Research Council, which was overhauled by the previous conservative government, will again be “re-imagined”, with more than C$500 million over the next five years, with broad aims to enhance collaborative research aimed at technological development and commercialisation. And quite intriguingly, the largest individual investment in science, C$1.8 billion, is devoted to the creation of new facilities to “renew federal laboratories”, billed as collaborative spaces that will bring together federal scientists from different agencies, departments and institutes.

As for fundamental research, the budget delivered an increase of C$925 million over five years for the research councils, and C$235 million per year afterwards. That is only just over half the magnitude of increase suggested by the Naylor report, but it does restore a trajectory of funding growth after years of stagnation, interrupted only by the Liberal Party’s 2016 budget: its first after coming into office.

Considering the mixed messages that the government has sent since then – avoiding public statements on the Naylor report, renewing the boutique programmes it criticised, freezing the budget again in 2017 – the latest announcements will certainly be welcomed, if not celebrated.

Creso Sá is professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, University of Toronto.

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Print headline: Science budget wins cheers

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