The dust has settled from the hot takes of Budget 2021, providing a moment to reflect on the priorities and objectives it sets out for the current government. As members of the Toronto Science Policy Network and Science Policy & Exchange, we are interested in how the budget supports a productive research environment, and how this translates to applications in Canadian innovation, the economy and solving pressing problems. Since its release, many have applauded the budget’s strides in areas dedicated to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and emerging scientific areas such as quantum physics. Simultaneously, criticisms are mounting over a siloed approach to Research & Development funding and the politically-motivated “something for everyone” spending style. With this in mind, we are disappointed by the government’s timidity and inattention to the bigger picture; it wishes to claim a mantle of leadership without the substantial investments in strategic areas that can support this claim. From an ecosystem perspective, we see the budget as overly focused on the charismatic megafauna, without considering the vital role of supporting players; the abiotic environment (e.g., infrastructure), the primary producers (e.g., basic sciences), primary consumers (e.g., applied sciences) and decomposers (e.g., industry), and how these components can strategically coalesce to support a prosperous future. Through examples in three research sectors, the life and health sciences, fundamental sciences, and climate change, we highlight areas where the government could benefit from an holistic approach that sees the forest for the trees.
Beginning with the biomedical and life sciences sector, as expected after a global pandemic, a serious investment of CA$2.2 billion over seven years was made. Unfortunately, most of this is focused on vaccine development and boosting biomedical applications, whereas the fundamental, investigator-led research did not see a significant funding increase. The budget falls short in investing in basic sciences, which are necessary for finding new cures, therapies and ways of combating disease and health crises . Before the pandemic, mRNA vaccines themselves were basic science; because they had been developed and studied, they could be quickly implemented with strong scientific footing. Some argue that the decline in funding for Canadian research laboratories will have long-term negative consequences as labs are closing, core personnel are being laid off, and graduate students are departing prematurely. Consequently, Canada’s ability to support basic life sciences is deteriorating, limiting our capacity to find crucial scientific discoveries and save future lives. By contrast, the Biden administration’s budget has suggested historical investments in the basic sciences with The National Science Foundation to receive upwards of $10.2 billion dollars, a 20% increase in its funding. This targeted investment includes the creation of a new Technology, Innovation and Partnerships directorate that would aid in smoother and efficient transfer of research from bench to the marketplace, an avenue that Canada has yet to explore. This is amidst a decline (-3%) in Canadian patent claims, a key indicator of activity in the innovation, development and technology sector. Meanwhile, patent claims in the USA, France and China went up by 2%, 9% and 36% respectively. Similarly, the UK’s Life Science Industrial Strategy identified that Canada falls short in life sciences R&D spending as a proportion of GDP in comparison to OECD countries. Without a clear roadmap on how Canada expects to build the bridge from science to innovation and support basic science research infrastructure, Canada’s position on the biomedical and life sciences metric may not fare well in the future.
Beyond basic life sciences, there was little to be said for fundamental science research in the 2021 Budget. Despite some investments in applied research, there remains a large gap. As Rachel Maxwell, the Executive Director of Evidence4Democracy, puts it, there is no science strategy. What happened to studying evolutionary biology, inorganic chemistry, or classical mechanics? These important disciplines have helped lay the foundations for future drug discoveries and engineering feats.
Given the long timelines involved in fundamental science research, there is no venture capital fund that will provide investments. Thus without government funding, progress in these sectors is limited. However, though the applicability of such research may seem shrouded in the present day, investments in fundamental science have been shown to pay off in the long run through innovation such as insulin, stem cells, and the Canadarm. However, behind each remarkable discovery is the long slog of fundamental science research.
The 2017 Fundamental Science Review identified three key pillars to develop the research ecosystem:
- Direct project funding;
- Funding for Research Infrastructure and Equipment; and,
- Infrastructure Operating Costs
A holistic strategy to science funding would start with addressing these three pillars. Afterall, fundamental science is the foundation of innovation and technology. Without providing adequate fundamental science funding, Canada’s research ecosystem will continue to lag behind its peers.
Perhaps the intention, rather, is to eschew increases in fundamental science funding in favor of fighting the immediate crisis of climate change. However, critics have questioned whether the $17.6 billion “Green Recovery” plan in Budget FY2021 will actually help Canada achieve the 36% cut in 2005-level emissions by 2030 or position Canada as a climate-leader. Whereas Sweden, Norway and Denmark have topped the World Economic Forum’s latest Energy Transition Index (ETI), Canada doesn’t even make the top ten. As decarbonizing energy systems is only possible through increased funding for research and development while simultaneously deploying existing technologies (i.e. solar, wind, and batteries) at scale, along with better cross-sector collaboration, it’s no wonder that Canada lags behind these countries in terms of gross expenditure on research and development (GERD); in this case, it seems that Canada is underfunding the “primary producers” to climate change action, in favour of a few strategies that target the primary “consumers” or contributors of CO2 into the atmosphere.
While the budget did earmark $319 million for R&D into carbon capture, other specific climate-related R&D funding is absent. Furthermore, the budget proposes significant tax credits to companies who invest in carbon capture technology. Together, these initiatives are more likely to lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, delaying a transition away from fossil-fuels. Indeed, the path between Canada’s current state and its lofty climate-goals is fraught by assumptions, leaving us to wonder if the budget considers the bigger picture. Meanwhile, the U.S. is likely to leave us in their dust, with a historic 9% increase in R&D spending; including a 30% increase in clean energy R&D. The feds need to do a better job showing how their spending will make Canada into a climate leader; more R&D funding to climate-initiatives outside of carbon capture that have proven to be effective would be a welcome start
Beyond all the issues mentioned above, the role the next-generation plays in these sectors has been severely overlooked, as evidenced by the lack of targeted investment in scholarships and bursaries through the tri-council agencies remains largely unchanged. To compare it to the US’s budget, the NSF is expected to get a 16% boost that will provide at least 500 new scholarships (a total of 2500), a 20% increase in awards to individual scientists and 15% increase in average grant size. Such detailed investments in Canada’s trainees is sorely lacking in Budget 2021. While Next-generation researchers make up a relatively small proportion of the overall workforce, they will be instrumental in developing and deploying the green energy technologies that are required for rapid decarbonization. Without comparable investments to those made in the US, Canada will suffer from brain-drain and see a shortage of talented individuals and trainees with the necessary skills to work in the sustainable industries that the budget wants to build.
At every level, this budget fails to treat Canada’s research and innovation environments as an ecosystem composed of interacting components, each of which are necessary for healthy functioning. We urge the government to take a more holistic perspective to ensure that important supporting players aren’t overlooked. While the expectation for this government to turn things around overnight is unrealistic, it is still concerning that after nearly 6 years of time to make an impact – what do the feds have to show for it?