How Canada Can Increase Research Funding to Improve Competitiveness
Canada has more graduate students and post-doctoral students than ever before. The prospects are great. They’re enthused, smart, and talented. That’s the good news. The support side isn’t so rosy. Canada has failed to keep pace with the funding required to get those players signed, equipped, and on the field.
The competition is moving fast to invest in research to develop the biggest ideas and grow new talent. The US, for example, is investing US$200 billion through the CHIPS and Sciences Act for fundamental research. Its Inflation Reduction Act has some overlapping priorities also aiming to improve economic innovation, competitiveness, and industrial productivity.
“We need to grow our research funding to stay ahead of today’s competitors and those who are working hard to surpass us.”
Canada has a solid reputation internationally for hitting well above its weight in research. We’re still in the game but maintaining our place isn’t enough. We need to grow our research funding to stay ahead of today’s competitors and those who are working hard to surpass us. That takes resources and a national commitment.
The State of Research Funding in Canada
The recently released Bouchard report, from the government’s own advisory panel, has made that clear. And yet, Budget 2023 failed to deliver on much-needed investments in Canada’s research.
The Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System, headed by Frédéric Bouchard, looked at the structure and governance of research support. In particular, it considered the relationships among the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
The panel concluded Canada will continue falling behind its peers if we fail to increase core funding for our granting agencies.
The report recommends as an initial step that the federal government commit to an increase of at least 10% each year for five years to the granting councils’ total base budgets for core grant programming.
“Significant advances being made now in the fields of quantum, artificial intelligence, and electric vehicles are only possible because of discovery investments made decades ago by previous governments.”
That could go a long way to laying the groundwork for the next big thing. Significant advances being made now in the fields of quantum, artificial intelligence, and electric vehicles are only possible because of discovery investments made decades ago by previous governments. To leave its own legacy, today’s government has to invest now.
Budget 2023 offered a glimmer of acknowledgment with its commitment to investments in space research. That’s great—we’ll cheer on Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen as he circles the moon—but we need the same support for many other important fields, from microbiology to sociology.
François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said as much in announcing the new report. “Because we know that today’s science is tomorrow’s economy, our government is committed to ensuring that our talented, world-class researchers have the right support for the crucial work they are doing,” he said. Budget 2023 offered none of that “right support.”
The Bouchard panel also calls for an increase in research funding to an internationally competitive level for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
The value and number of Canada Graduate Scholarships have not increased in nearly 20 years, meaning they’ve halved in real value. This is Canada’s flagship program for early career researchers. Just imagine how far your budget from 2003 would get you today.
Why Canada Must Get Its Research Funding On Track
As this next generation of promise struggles financially, Canada will have a tough time keeping the best of that group here. Universities across Canada agree with the Bouchard panel’s conclusion that addressing this problem is critical for supporting Canada’s early career research talent. The latest budget did not deliver on this important re-investment either.
If we don’t provide infrastructure and research funding to the most sought-after scholars, they will go elsewhere. They have options outside our borders.
Any employer will tell you it’s better to retain an employee than to go out and recruit. The same principle applies to researchers. It’s far less expensive and faster to invest now in talent than see great people leave and then try to recover them. These people have already moved on to other countries and made friends. Their spouses may have found work they love and their children have been enrolled in schools and clubs. Moving back becomes too much trouble.
We already know this. Canada had previously spent 10 years recovering from a brain drain created in the mid-90s when the provincial and federal governments stopped investing in universities. We can’t sit by idly watching a repeat of that.
“Canada’s research landscape needs an immediate infusion of support from the federal government. Every month’s delay risks further talent loss and backsliding.”
Granting councils are delivering on their mandate of discovery research and yet they are underfunded. Graduate scholars are passionate about their work, seeing the potential in every test administered, document discovered, and stone turned. They haven’t seen an increase in funding in two decades.
Budget 2023 indicates that details will be provided in the coming months on the modernization of Canada’s research support system following the publication of the Bouchard report. The government would do well to start with this detail: Canada’s research landscape needs an immediate infusion of support from the federal government. Every month’s delay risks further talent loss and backsliding.
Canada must step up, show ambition, and implement the recommendations from the panel’s excellent work. We’ve shown we can lead in global research. It’s time for Canada to flex again.