Jim Woodgett

April 24, 2015
Jim Woodgett
News Source: 
Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of Sinai Health System

Where’s the Science Beef in Canadian Budget 2015?

In an election year, it is not surprising that any government’s priorities are focused squarely on pleasing the electorate and thin on more ephemeral aspects such as research and education. Budget 2015 was no exception, except that’s not what you might surmise from reading the carefully parsed summary documents provided by the government.

In those, you’ll find reassurance that the government has invested $13 billion in science, technology and “innovation” since 2006 and announces “$1.5 billion in new resources over five years in these areas”. This isn’t exactly true, as I’ll explain later. But what might come as a surprise to most Canadian researchers is a graph indicating Canada enjoyed the highest investment of R&D in the higher education sector among G7 countries in 2012.

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This rosy picture is not entirely in line with another analysis of government funded research in the G8 from 1996 to 2012. This data has Canada at about the right spot in 2012 funding as a percentage of GDP as the prior plot, but the trajectory is falling fast.


There are other discrepancies between these graphs and data can be drawn to show whatever one wants, but clearly, Canada is not heading in the right direction and government seems oblivious to this. Let’s dig a little deeper.

The primary source of science operating funds are provided by the tricouncils, CIHR/NSERC and SSHRC, which, when indirect costs and other flow through dollars (e.g. CRCs) are included, accounts for about $2.5 billion in annual funding. There are no new dollars added to the tricouncil budgets this year (2015/16) but there is a modest $46 million to be added in 2016/17 - $15 million to CIHR and NSERC, $7.5 million to SSHRC and the rest in indirects. This new money, though, is largely ear-marked for new initiatives, such as the CIHR Strategy on Patient Oriented Research ($13 million) and an anti-microbial resistant infection program ($2 million). Likewise for NSERC and SSHRC although NSERC enjoys around $16 million relief in not needing to support industrial postgraduate scholarships as this responsibility moves to MITACS with no funding loss at NSERC. Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, estimates that, taking inflation into account, tricouncil funding will be down 9% since 2008. It is hardly surprising that funding applications to these agencies are under enormous competitive pressure. At CIHR, the last open operating grant competition yielded unprecedented low success rates of ~14% along with across-the-board budget cuts of grants that were funded of 26%. This agency is in year 1 of major program reforms and has very little wiggle-room with its frozen budget. Although CIHR has run two project competitions per year for the past 15 years, it announced recently it will only allow one application per calendar year per applicant – ostensibly in an attempt to improve success rates. This policy will have serious repercussions on competitiveness of Canadian health researchers.

The biggest winner for science in the budget in terms of actual new dollars is the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) which will receive $1.33 billion over 6 years starting in 2017/18. This is great news as the agency has recently committed all of its existing funding through various competitions. If it had not received funding this year, with empty coffers, CFI would have had to shelve plans for future infrastructure competitions, negatively affecting programs such as the large scale infrastructure competition and John Evan’s Leaders Opportunity Fund, the latter a source of critical start up and retention dollars for equipment. But there’s a problem. When CFI was initially set up as an arms-length Foundation, it was funded through end of year budget surpluses (in essence, competing with deficit reduction and other end of year programs). Unlike the tricouncils which have a year to year, roll-over budget, CFI (and Genome Canada) relies on occasional injections of funds.

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From 1999-2014, CFI has expended ~$5.5 billion. Spread out equally over time that equals $367 million per year. The initial funding was lower and has increased such that the past 5 years have averaged $450 million each year of funding. A little math shows that the new commitment adds up to $221 million per year, approximately half of the recently recorded expenditure rate and only two thirds of the average since inception. The funding is appropriately back-ended, reflecting the time it takes to set up competitions and then procure the infrastructure, but needless to say, this is a significant step backwards for the federal agency that effectively throttles infrastructure investment at a critical time. As seen in the diagram above, most infusions into CFI have occurred over 2-3 year periods. By granting $1.33 billion over 6 years, the government was able to tout this as the “largest single investment ever in research infrastructure”. You might draw your own conclusions.

All governments should have an eye to the future as well as improving lives in the present. The consequences of stagnating or reducing funding of scientific programs with inherently long lag times will not seen for several years. The 2015 budget stole from the future to feed the present imperative. This is not a sustainable way forward.