Funding cuts blamed as blue-skies research ‘collapses’ in Canada

‘Shocking’ shift away from fundamental projects harms country's scientific reputation, says author of report

June 30, 2017
piece of glacier falling in to the sea
Source: Getty
Crashing down: ‘the findings were pretty shocking…The number [of people in Canada doing exclusively basic research] collapsed’

Blue-skies research in Canada has “collapsed”, according to a report that highlights a C$535 million (£317 million) “massive hole” in funding for academics over the past decade.

The Global Young Academy, an international society of early career scientists, found that just 1.6 per cent of Canada’s researchers said that they had worked solely on fundamental projects between 2011 and 2015, following the introduction of federal budget policies that forced them to redirect their work into more applied areas.

This was down from the 24 per cent who reported having worked exclusively on fundamental research in the five years previously.

One of the report’s authors, Jeremy Kerr, university research chair in macroecology and conservation at the University of Ottawa, said that the “progressive erosion” of funding has left the country struggling to hold on to scientific talent.

“Canadian science in its reputation is taking a hit,” he said. “The funding system was running out of oxygen over the course of 2005-15.”

Across Canada, the number of researchers working in the natural sciences and engineering increased by 35 per cent between 2005 and 2013 – the latest year for which data are available – and by 43 per cent in the social sciences and the humanities, says the report, Restoring Canada’s Competitiveness in Fundamental Research: The View from the Bench.  

Over the same period, the amount of funding available per researcher for fundamental work fell by 36 per cent in the natural sciences and engineering, and by 31 per cent in the social sciences and the humanities. Although data are not available for the health-related research fields, Professor Kerr believes that the fall in fundamental funding per researcher is in the same ballpark.

“The consequence is that Canada has effectively dug itself a hole to the tune of about C$530 million in real funding for Canadian researchers,” Professor Kerr said.

He added that the administration of Justin Trudeau, who was elected prime minister in 2015, has invested C$67 million “back into the system” but still has a “steep hill to climb to fill the accumulated funding gap”.

The report also included a survey of 1,300 senior researchers and principal investigators, which found that the proportion working only on fundamental research had plummeted by 25 percentage points over the decade to 2015.

“The findings were pretty shocking…The number [of people doing exclusively fundamental research] collapsed,” Professor Kerr said.

Overall, 40 per cent of respondents said that they had “substantially” changed the focus of their research over the decade, with almost half of these saying that the government’s funding priorities were to blame.

Stephen Ferguson, Canada research chair in brain and mind at the University of Ottawa, said that he is relatively immune from the funding cuts because he is a tenured member of faculty.

“But if you are in a research institute, it is a different story. You survive from grant to grant,” he said.

“Where it really impacts is the technical people, the students and the postdocs because if there is no funding to run the research lab, there is no money to fund those positions. Those types of positions are being lost at a very rapid rate, which nobody really talks about.”

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