A decade of defunded public science: preparing for the next crisis

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Conference Editorials, Editorials


Eleanor McGrath

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

Research Officer

A photo of a white woman in glasses and a grey blazer, smiling

As we collectively wake up from another federal election, to another Liberal minority government, many scientists and researchers are breathing a sigh of relief: expecting they  won’t see another round of devastating cuts to science spending, similar to those experienced  under previous Conservative governments. But is that relief too hasty?

The cuts that happened under Prime Minister Harper were well documented and loudly publicized. The Liberal’s 2015 campaign, under now Prime Minister Trudeau, included an incredible emphasis on being science based. Indeed, after they were elected in 2015, we saw the ushering in of a Minister of Science (though absorbed in 2019 into the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry), the reboot of the Chief Science Advisor, an announcement of the unmuzzling of scientists, renewed promises of “evidence-informed decision making” and spending that did steadily increase. Canadians and the public service are better for it.

And yet, for the current fiscal year, federal expenditures for intramural science and technology – that is, money for research and development and related science activities carried out within the public service – are not expected to even reach 2010/2011 levels when adjusted  for inflation. In fact, it’s not even close: intramural science and technology spending still lags by almost three quarters of a billion dollars ($740 million to be exact). So yes, there was a period where gains were made incrementally in each budget cycle. But, here we are, six years after the tide was supposed to turn and public service science remains more under-resourced than it was a decade ago.

A graph of intramural science and technology expenditures from 2011 to 2022 showing a relatively steady horizontal line

Obviously, the government saw the value and need for federal-public-service science during the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2020-21 there was a huge anomalous increase of intramural science spending. Apparently though, the pandemic has not motivated us enough to re-evaluate our priorities and future-proof the budget for 2021/2022. With the election decided and the same government in power, we expect the same pre-pandemic spending trajectory to continue, unfortunately. 

The pandemic should have proven the invaluable necessity of robust science and technology capacity in the federal public service. These scientists stepped up in so many ways when Canadians needed them most: they compiled and analysed critical data; provided modelling and projections; scrutinized and approved safe, life-saving vaccines; rolled out the logistics for people to access financial benefits in record time; and many more crucial contributions behind the scenes. Imagine what Canada’s pandemic response would have looked like if public service science capacity was weaker then what we currently have? Academia and industry have contributed immensely but they don’t have the scope or mandate to manage systemic crises on the scale of COVID-19 as the benefits of centralized coordination were made clear. The Canadian public benefits just as much, or more, when science and research happens in the interest of the public good. 

The pandemic is not even over but we have to start thinking about what could be next. Climate crises? Another pandemic? There are many unknowns. A decade ago, most of us couldn’t have imagined where we are today. We should learn from the experience. What we do know is one of the keys to a successful, nimble and responsive public science and technology program is funding it adequately when times are, relatively-speaking, good. That way, when we find ourselves in the next crisis, we can benefit from a response that is evidence-informed and timely. 

We should all demand at least as much.