Canadian Federal Budget 2016: Back to Basics

March 24, 2016
Jim Woodgett

During the long Summer/Fall, 2015 General Election campaign, the Liberal Party of Canada campaigned on a number of issues that resonated with scientists who, as a group, had felt particulalry neglected by the Conservative Harper government. It wasn’t that the Conservative Party had forgotten science. Indeed, over the past decade it had invested in a variety of new science programs including the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the Vanier and Banting fellowships for trainees, the Centres of Excellence for Research Commercialization, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund and some other initiatives. It must have been disappointing for then Prime Minister Stephen Harper when much of this largesse only had the effect of further enraging the pesky researchers. In large part this was because the emphasis of these many of these investments was on targetting and application of science and on projects that promised short-term returns on investment. Science is historically recognized as a driver of innovation and wealth and so why not tip the balance to the lower hanging fruit, nearer to commercialization and job creation? The National Research Council of Canada, which has always been close to industry, was restructured so that its world class facilities basically became research labs for rent by the private sector. Famously, its President, John MacDougal, said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”.

The tricouncils (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) were given increases to their annual budgets by the Harper government that were typically less than inflation and ear-marked for specific programs, usually promoting applied research activities. As a consequence, funds for basic science began to dry up, especially for investigator-initiated funding opportunities. Exacerbating the problem, CIHR introduced a series of reforms purporting to modernize its adjudication process that fundamentally changed the application and review process. These changes were so significant that two bi-annual competitions were cancelled to free up funds for the new programs. Predictably, this massively increased the application pressure (number of applications submitted) in the competitions that did run, with a large negative impact on success rates. For example, the currently active Project scheme competition has almost twice the number of submitted grants as usual and CIHR is scrambling to find enough reviewers.

The CIHR program changes also had a highly deleterious effect on young investigators, namely those within the first 5 years of setting up their independent research. By some calculations, this cohort, representing the most promising and competitive scientists in Canada, lost a third of its traditional funding from CIHR in the last year. These researchers are un-tenured and particularly vulnerable, although mid-career researchers are also in dire straits.

So it was a relief that the Spring 2016 Federal budget injected an extra $30 million into the coffers of CIHR (and NSERC) for the 2016/17 fiscal year (as well as $15 million for SSHRC). This comes on top of $15 million promised by the Harper government in the 2015 budget (the tricouncils received zero increases in their budgets last year —a bitter snub) so these two agencies get an extra $45 million to allocate in 2016/17. They’ll need it and, in the case of CIHR, while it may only increase success rates by a couple of percentage points, it will be welcomed by everyone. Critically, $30 million of these funds are not targeted (it appears the $15 million will be directed to microbial research and to the poorly considered Strategy on Patient Oriented Research, as originally dictated in 2015) and it will be interesting to see how the councils choose to spend their newfound dollars.

Of note, the Finance Ministers speech makes specific mention of scientific research in three places:

1. To support these centres of excellence [universities, colleges and research institutes], our government will provide the highest annual funding increase in over a decade for discovery research through Canada’s granting councils — an additional $95 million per year.

2. These investments all reflect our core belief that the advancement of basic science and the development of intellectual capacity is the foundation of innovation.

3. As part of the boost in new annual funding for discovery research, we will provide an additional $30 million per year to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The emphasis is mine, but pretty clear. Discovery research/basic science is obviously the target for the money. These new investments are trumpeted by the government, as “the highest increase in a decade”. While true, they won’t really move the needle as CIHR would need a further $100 million per year in its base budget to catch up to where it was in 2008/9, based on inflation. Indeed, the government, in its full documentation, alludes to this goal, over the next few years. Rebuilding takes time.

Money makes the world go around, but, in my view, the most significant announcement in the budget regarding science does not involve dollars. Instead, on page 115 of the budget document, the Science Minister, the Rt. Honourable Kirsty Duncan, is tasked with a “comprehensive review of all aspects of federal support for fundamental science over the coming year”. The stated objective is to strengthen federal support for the granting councils and the research ecosystem. Specifically, it will “examine the rationale for current targeting of granting councils’ funding”, “bring greater coherence to the diverse range of federal research priorities… and funding instruments” and “assess support for promising research leaders”.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination (that is, none) to recognize this is a full frontal attack on the funding agency policies that have shifted funds from supporting the best ideas to targeting funding through top-down mechanisms — a trait of the previous government that was implemented by the current tricouncil leadership. It also recognizes the plight of young researchers (the empathy of the Minister of Science for this cohort is crystal clear in her meetings with researchers) and questions the proliferation of niche funding vehicles that have sprouted up over the past decade. In a country of Canada’s size and budget, it makes no sense to support a plethora of agencies with individual mandates. We have more agencies than the US which spends over 5 times as much per capita on research. A similar review of science funding recently took place in the UK (the Nurse Report), which recommended consolidation and coordination.

A review of the Canadian science ecosystem could, of course, be dangerous. Collapse of agencies into a larger vehicle(s) could lead to more disruption. But scientists should be very supportive of this review. Firstly, it is long overdue. The Canada Research ChairsCIHRGenome Canada and Canada Foundation for Innovation are all children of the Chretien Liberal government. Over time, they have lost lustre and attention to newer, narrower vehicles. Secondly, the increasing division of science funding is causing significant disconnections and separation of disciplines, leaving interdisciplinary researchers in the cold. Thirdly, there are imbalances between infrastructure/equipment, salary support and operational funds. Splitting these can (and has) lead to well-equipped laboratories with no operational funds to do research. Agencies like CFI and Genome Canada have irregular injections of funding and have long asked for a stable budget, much like the tricouncils. And lastly, there are simply too many agencies causing increased administration, increased costs and increased burden on researchers.

Hence, a thorough review would be timely and allow the government to examine our research enterprise in more depth. With appropriate and broadly sought advice and avoiding undue influence of the encumbency, I am confident that the Minister will find opportunities for efficiencies and new ways to more consistently support our world class research that, together, will reverse the trend of uncertainty and steady loss of brilliant minds from STEM fields. For a first budget, I am both encouraged and optimistic. The government has not only unmuzzled Canadian scientists, it is actively listening to them. Speak up!