Canadian science is under-funded. According to the OECD, Canada now spends less of its GDP on science than any other G7 country except for Italy. As a result, many scientists do not have funding to conduct the work they were hired to do. A generation of young Canadian scientists are being left behind and Canada is losing its competitive advantage. In contrast, rising world powers such as China are now rapidly surpassing Canada in terms of financial support for science, and the resulting innovation that comes with a healthy scientific community.
“Canada now spends less of its GDP on science than any other G7 country except for Italy. As a result, many scientists do not have funding to conduct the work they were hired to do.”
Why must governments increase their support for science? Charities do support some science, but this tends to be in very focused areas and less exploratory in nature. As for the private sector, there is no incentive to engage in basic fundamental exploratory research, as it does not provide a short-term financial gain. But that is not to say that basic research has no benefit. Engaging in basic research is critical on several fronts. It generates new unexpected findings that help fuel applied research and thus promotes private sector R&D. It trains our university students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, by allowing them to be engaged in cutting-edge research and to use the newest technology to solve problems and explore new frontiers. It also educates citizens on how to think rationally and gives them an appreciation of how hard it is to determine truths about nature, society and the world we live in. These students then go on not only to become the next generation of scientists, but importantly other jobs in the knowledge economy, where critical thinking and problem solving are required skills.
The University of Toronto recently published the results of the 10,000 PhD Project, which reports that these highly-trained individuals end up not only as researchers in academia but bring their considerable skills to the public, private and charitable sectors. They become the next generation of policy analysts, doctors, lawyers, and business entrepreneurs. Overall, most economists agree that federally funded research in American universities helped the US economy grow by an additional 50% in the 60 years after World War II. In the UK, it was estimated that for every pound spent on funding in cardiovascular, cancer and muscular dystrophy research, the British public saw a 7% to 10% yearly return on investment in increased health benefits, and an additional 15% in “spillover” effects on the general economy. Other studies have found similar rates of returns. The Covid-19 pandemic brought many of these issues into focus. This new threat could only be fully understood when society has an army of well-trained scientists. Citizens from around the world looked to scientists to explain what coronaviruses are, to guide public policy, and to develop new diagnostics and therapies.
The scientific community in Canada has been suffering under both Conservative and Liberal governments who have overseen a recent trend of defunding research. Calls for change by the scientific community have resulted in misguided reforms of how the federal granting agencies distribute research dollars. But the true heart of the problem has not been addressed – a lack of adequate financial support for the sciences. Canadian funding per capita is a little more than half of the funding provided to the United States and is losing ground on China as well. This funding gap was highlighted by a special report, commissioned by the federal government and headed by the former president of the University of Toronto, C. David Naylor. Released in 2017, the “Naylor Report”, clearly stated that science in Canada was under threat, and that it would need long-term support from the federal government. The federal government responded with a one-time 5% increase to the three Canadian science funding agencies. However, besides this one event, science funding has remained static under the Trudeau Government, not even keeping up with the rate of inflation. As a result, Canada is no longer seen as a world leader in science.
“The Canadian government needs to increase its investment in research, but most importantly increase the budget of the federal research councils.”
If Canada is to continue its transition from a resources-based economy to one driven by innovation, the Canadian government needs to increase its investment in research, but most importantly increase the budget of the federal research councils. A commitment to a measured and reasonable 7% annual increase would double the current science research council budget in a decade allowing Canada to continue to train the next generation of scientists and compete globally. With this modest increase in support, Canada, where insulin and stem cells were discovered, where the Blackberry and the CanadArm were developed, can once again be seen as a world leader in science and discovery. This becomes critical if we want to have a science-literate society that can overcome all the new unexpected challenges that we will face in the near and distant future.