Canadian budget offers little extra for science

Despite thin pickings this time around, Trudeau’s Liberals have probably done enough to win the science vote in October’s election, says Creso Sá

March 25, 2019
A Canadian piggy bank wearing a mortarboard
Source: iStock

Canada’s 2019 budget, delivered on 19 March, was not just business as usual for its ruling Liberal Party. Mired in accusations that the prime minister’s office sought to intervene on behalf of engineering firm SNC-Lavalin in a fraud case against it, the Trudeau government was desperate to steer the national debate towards something resembling good press for it. After all, there will be a general election in October.

Hence, there is something in “Investing in the Middle Class” for everyone. It is a campaign piece, clearly outlining the Liberals' talking points and previous financial commitments. Science is a relatively small component, but it follows the general pattern. This is not a year of big ticket announcements, but, rather, of spreading money around a number of constituents.

There is new funding for 500 additional master’s scholarships and 167 three-year doctoral scholarships – although it must be noted that PhD programmes in Canada usually last four years or longer. Parental leave for scholarship-funded graduate students is increased from six months to a year.

We are reminded that last year’s budget included “the largest ever increase in funding for fundamental research through Canada’s granting councils” and that, since 2016, the government “has committed more than C$9.4 billion (£5.3 billion) to support Canadian scientists and researchers”. These points were echoed in a tweet by science minister Kirsty Duncan after the budget’s release. She also noted that, in the wake of the previous Conservative government’s perceived hostility towards science, “we have been working hard to return science and research to their rightful place. We unmuzzled scientists, we brought back the long-form census, and we reinstated the position of chief scientific advisor.”

Special allocations are made to a number of research organisations in fields such as cancer, neuroscience, genomics and atomic physics. Here, the budget veers from the course advocated in the 2017 Fundamental Science Review (FSR), which has been widely supported by scientists. Basically, the contention was that for decades the federal government created a scattering of flashy funding schemes that pulled federal research dollars in multiple directions, with varying levels of peer review and oversight. This has weighed on the budgets of the federal research councils, which are the main sources of funding for merit-based investigator-initiated research, reducing success rates and lowering the funding available for fundamental investigation. The FSR called for a halt in the proliferation of boutique initiatives, a rationalisation of award mechanisms and reinvestment in the research councils.

Budget 2018 made a credible case that the message had been heard, with multi-year commitments to fundamental research (although falling far short of the levels of the investment called for). However, this year clearly shows that when it comes to science lobbying, it is business as usual in Ottawa. An apparent mea culpa comes in the form of a Strategic Science Fund to be created in 2022, described vaguely as a “principles-based framework for allocating federal funding that includes competitive, transparent processes” to support “third-party science and research organisations”. Given the lack of urgency in foreshadowing this announcement, it can be read arguably as a promise that things will eventually be different.

All things considered, have the Liberals done enough to earn the science vote? Those Ottawa insiders embedded in the federal lobbying networks have a vested interest in the system, and a number of them have been quite successful in securing support for their organisations. I see no reason why they would be displeased, and this year’s budget delivered good news for many groups.

Conversely, those who judge the Liberals against their early lofty promises and the expectations raised by the FSR are bound to be disappointed. But will they be disappointed enough to cast their vote elsewhere? The Conservatives are currently the most serious challenger to Trudeau, but while the memories of how the last government dealt with science may not be insurmountable, the party’s conspicuous lack of any serious science platform does not inspire confidence.

One thing is clear: there will be no single science vote. Anyone’s pretence of speaking for “science” ignores the multiple competing and even contradictory interests at play in Canada’s scientific community.

Creso Sá is professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto. A version of this article was published by the Canadian Science Policy Centre. 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Just enough to satisfy scientists

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