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Science and Innovation in the 2016 Federal Budget

March 29, 2016
By: 
Mehrdad Hariri
CEO and Co-Founder, Canadian Science Policy Conference

The new government’s first federal budget was announced on Tuesday. As expected, and to general praise—except, perhaps, regarding the magnitude of the deficit—the budget placed a worthy emphasis on measures to help the environment, to address challenges facing our Aboriginal population, and to direct child care benefits to those who need them most. What did the budget do to address science and innovation issues?

 

The Headlines: Modest Increases, Shift in Emphasis, Strategic Review

Although there were some modest increases in the budget for policies and programs affecting science and innovation, the overall impression is that this area is waiting in the queue, behind some of the higher-priority issues mentioned above. This is not surprising: the government is still quite new, and needs to take time to understand the science and innovation landscape and develop new strategies before making significant investments.

In the science realm, there was a shift of emphasis in this budget towards more basic, discovery-oriented science.  This shift is in sharp contrast to the emphasis placed by the previous government, whose focus was on applied- and commercially-oriented science; and it is likely to be greeted with relief by the scientific community as a whole.

Perhaps the biggest announcement concerning science in this budget is that there will be a strategic review of how science is funded, how the agencies overseeing science are structured, and how to increase the overall efficiency of this process. Such a review is long overdue: there are many important lessons to be learned from around the world in how to make science funding most effective.  

 

More Good News

The budget included a modest increase, just above the rate of inflation, for the granting councils.

A few areas received targeted funding in this budget, including the Perimeter Institute, Genome Canada, and brain and stem-cell research.

This government is serious about climate change and investing in clean technologies. Compared to the previous government’s almost complete lack of acknowledgement of climate change, this is a huge and meaningful improvement.

 

Watch this Space…

Big investments in climate change and environmental science may bring important benefits: this is an area to watch.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, with respect to engagement with the international community, Canada is back. The budget reflects this re-emphasis on international development, with a commitment to increase Canada’s International Assistance Envelope (IAE) to over $5 billion by 2018. 

However, it is important to remember the key role that science and innovation can play in Canada’s international affairs approach and in international development. Perhaps the most obvious example is that the effects of climate change do not stop at international borders, and Canada can play a role in helping low- and middle-income countries innovate to prevent or fight environmental challenges. This is where science diplomacy can play a key role, in the area where science exists at the intersection of international diplomacy and development.

 

A Shift in Direction

In summary, it is clear that this government takes science and innovation seriously, and is particularly focused on addressing climate change and environmental issues. This not only represents a change in direction from the previous government, but, in alignment with other policy decisions—such as restoring the long-form census—by the current government, there is a clear and positive change in how science is viewed and valued.

The strategic review of science funding announced in this budget, and the previously announced drafting of an innovation strategy for Canada, underlines this new seriousness about the role of science and innovation. The important role and potential of science diplomacy will, I hope, become ever more apparent.

Finally, in the months ahead, over the course of the strategic review and the drafting of the new innovation strategy, stakeholders will become engaged in a more meaningful way. This fresh approach by itself is a new one, greatly appreciated by the science and innovation community.