A science budget to celebrate

March 5, 2018
Alan Bernstein and John Hepburn
President and CEO
Vice President Research

Budget 2018 is excellent news for Canadian science. It represents a balanced and strategic approach to the operational, infrastructure and personnel needs of research and it recognizes that Canada needs both unfettered and strategic research programs.

The Government of Canada should be congratulated for listening and for understanding that research is key to other government policy objectives, including developing a more innovative and diversified economy, a more innovative and cost-effective health system, the role of women in society, and Canada’s place in the world. Budget 2018 also goes a long way towards fulfilling the recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review (the Naylor Report) commissioned by Kirsty Duncan, Canada’s Minister of Science. Importantly, Budget 2018 not only increases science funding overall, but it begins the long overdue process of making the needed structural changes in the way science is funded in Canada.

These historic increases didn’t just happen. Many people and organizations, working together and speaking with a single voice, helped to make this happen. Starting with the stellar report written by the Naylor Committee and the many representations made in response from the research community, foundations, individual Canadians, charities and industry, one lesson from Budget 2018 is the importance of speaking up, constructively, with one voice and a clear message.

Over the next five years, the government will invest $925 million in increased funding for investigator driven fundamental research through the granting councils. Although not the $1.3 billion increase the Naylor Report recommended, it goes a long way towards making up for a decade of underinvestment in fundamental research. The budget also includes more than $1.3 billion over five years for equipment and infrastructure, new funding for the NRC and government labs, as well as funding for women innovators.

Providing international levels of support for outstanding researchers to pursue their ideas is the proper role of government. Only the public sector can support uncertain, long time line fundamental research. And only the private sector can take ideas that emerge from fundamental research and turn them into new products and companies. Canada’s global success in AI is a textbook example of the complementary roles of the public and private sectors.

Infrastructure funding of $763 million over the next five years through CFI will give it a much-needed longer time horizon to plan strategically. Budget 2018 also commits that by 2023/24, CFI will receive stable funding, at a level of over $400 million annually.

The government has also created a new Fund of $275 million over the next five years for international, interdisciplinary fast-breaking and higher-risk research. (I have referred to such a fund elsewhere as the Canada Challenge Fund). There are many important details about this fund that remain to be worked out. What will the fund support? How will it be administered? Although the Budget states that SSHRC will administer the fund, we recommend that the new Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) administer this new Fund. Such a move would give real legs and purpose to this new committee. Our country’s investments in fundamental research should support how research is carried out today. At CIFAR, we believe implicitly in the importance and value of global and interdisciplinary science. And many of the challenges facing Canada, issues such as the future of the Arctic, require interdisciplinary teams of scientists that span the social, health and physical scientists and humanities.

The budget also consolidates and simplifies what had become a confusing number of NSERC’s industry-facing programs into a single Collaborative Research and Development Grant program. Simplifying this suite of programs should make it easier to assess whether they provide value for money.

Some members of the research community have argued that Budget 2018 does not go far enough. We beg to differ. Budget 2018 is an historic reinvestment in fundamental unfettered research and in other measures not detailed here.

The government has done its part. Not it’s time for the granting councils, CFI, the research community and our universities to ensure that these funds are utilised to ensure maximum value. There are at least three areas where we recommend that the CRCC (made up of the four presidents, the two relevant deputy ministers and the Chief Science Advisor) focus their attention:

First, Canada’s investments in infrastructure, operations, and people should align with and mutually support each other, ensuring that precious dollars are used to maximum impact.

Second, as the Naylor Report pointed out, the distinct cultures of the granting councils, with success rates and average grant sizes that differ by five- to eight-fold, make it difficult for the agencies to work together effectively. These differences compromise our ability to boldly tackle exciting scientific problems and challenges facing Canada and the world.

And third, it’s critical that early career investigators be given the opportunity to launch their careers. The future of the research enterprise in this country depends critically on young scientists and the energy and plasticity that they provide.

Governments support fundamental research because they understand that it is essential for driving innovation, for improving our health care system, for ensuring a sufficient supply of individuals with scientific, engineering and critical skills, creating new jobs and for understanding the complex world in which we live. The research community now has two jobs: first, to thank the government for their largesse and understanding of the central role that research plays in a globalized knowledge economy and second, to ensure that Canada fully reaps the benefits of these historic investments.