A perennial question in Ottawa has been how to provide a consistent, reliable, and rational source of funds for Canada’s Major Research Facilities (MRFs) and other nationally significant research facilities that operate outside of government departments and agencies. MRFs, as defined in Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, include national facilities such as TRIUMF, the Canadian Light Source, and Canada’s National Design Network. Many MRFs rely, or have relied on, ad hoc funding mechanisms, which are often temporary, requiring them to be constantly seeking government assistance through lobbying.
The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), notably through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund, has greatly improved this situation by offering a fund that provides stability in six-year increments for facilities that are eligible to apply and are successful in its competition. In August 2022, the CFI announced the results of its $628 million competition for the 2023–2029 term of its MSI Fund (analysed below in Table 1).
Another way the CFI has improved funding for nationally significant research facilities is by encouraging multiple local or regional facilities used for similar research to assemble into national facilities. In this way, facilities achieve economies of scale and have a greater impact by serving users across the country. Such Canada-wide facilities are also better positioned to secure operating funds. A few examples:
- Compute Canada arose as a federation of high-performance computing facilities, which was then funded by the CFI MSI Fund. Compute Canada later “graduated” from the MSI Fund when it was re-created as the Digital Research Alliance of Canada in 2019–2020, and is now funded directly by the Government of Canada via its Digital Research Infrastructure strategy.
- Ocean Networks Canada operates two large, cabled ocean observatories in the Pacific Ocean (NEPTUNE and VENUS, which were created separately), as well as several smaller facilities elsewhere along Canada’s northern and western coasts. Ocean Networks Canada received the largest award in the present competition, at $114.8 million.
- CFI investment in the Canadian Research Data Centre Network (CRDCN) in 2010 enabled the CRDCN to develop a single, nationwide, secure Wide Area Network facilitated by CANARIE to connect research data centres across the country with Statistics Canada. The CRDCN was then successful in the 2017–2022 MSI competition and received the greatest increase in funding in the 2023–2029 competition, at 80%.
- Coalition Publica is a partnership between Érudit and the Public Knowledge Project. In the 2023–2029 competition, the Coalition was awarded a 50% increase over the previous CFI award granted to Érudit operating separately.
A stable funding source for nationally distributed networks of research facilities can help these networks when the funding sources that created them expire. Two examples from the 2023–2029 competition:
- Global Water Futures is a national research initiative resulting from a one-time $78 million Canada First Research Excellence Fund grant. The Global Water Futures Observatories (GWFO) has arisen out of this initiative as an integrated network of water laboratories and instruments that are monitoring aquatic systems across Canada. The GWFO is the largest new facility funded in the 2023–2029 competition, at $15.3 million over the six-year period.
- The Canadian Glycomics Network, or GlycoNet, is funded by the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) as a “one-stop shop” for developing new carbohydrate-based drugs and diagnostics. As the NCE program has been discontinued, such networks must either evolve to fit other funding mechanisms or shut down. GlycoNet Integrated Services, which is the infrastructure operated by GlycoNet and used by glycomics researchers across Canada, was successful in the 2023–2029 MSI competition and awarded $10.7 million.
Tough to gain entrance to the MSI Fund, with high stakes for incumbents
The MSI Fund was not designed to meet all of Canada’s needs for investment in such facilities. Yet in the absence of any other funding source intended to support the operation of large research infrastructure, many MRFs and other nationally significant research facilities are left with no choice but to apply to the MSI fund knowing that many applications will be denied.
The recent MSI Fund competition is a reminder of how heavily oversubscribed the Fund is. The funds available through the 2023–2029 MSI competition were essentially the same as those available in the previous competition after adjusting for inflation and the change from a five-year term to a six-year term. Since only one of the incumbent facilities “graduated out” of the Fund—the former Compute Canada—many applicant facilities were sure to be disappointed. In fact, the CFI qualified 34 facilities and invited all of them to submit a full application; only 19 of these facilities received funding. (The number of facilities in need of operating funds, which tried to apply but were not deemed qualified to submit a full MSI application, has not been published.)
For facilities that are already part of the MSI club, it is a high-stakes game intensified by the oversubscription rate. CFI MSI funds often comprise a huge portion of a facility’s requisite funding, typically covering 30–40% of its operating costs (and up to 60% in some cases). Moreover, the MSI funds are often a majority of the facility’s operating cash, since many partners provide in-kind contributions only. Loss of MSI funding would be a devastating blow in most cases.
Fortunately for those previously funded facilities, incumbents do have some advantages in the competition. Selection criteria such as effective and efficient user access, governance that includes long-term strategic planning in consultation with a user community, and best practices in management all favour facilities that have previously enjoyed the funding required to establish and continuously improve their practices in these areas over time. The CFI rightly boasts that its MSI Fund has helped its funded facilities improve in such areas.
It is not surprising, then, that of the 16 incumbent facilities that reapplied in the 2023–2029 competition, 13 were awarded funds. In fact, the three biggest incumbent facilities increased their collective share from 47% in the previous term to 50% in the 2023–2029 term: Ocean Networks Canada ($114.8 million), SNOLAB ($102 million), and the Canadian Light Source ($97.2 million). A further two facilities were incumbents from an earlier MSI term (the 2014–2016 round), and though they had lost their MSI funding for 2017–2022, they have now rejoined the MSI club for 2023–2029: these two are the Advanced Laser Light Source ($3.4 million) and the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics ($9 million; previously funded as the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario).
The only four facilities completely new to the MSI club are all on the smaller end of the size spectrum of funded facilities, together representing only 7% of awarded funds:
- The Global Water Futures Observatories ($15.3 million)
- IISD Experimental Lakes Area Inc. ($11.7 million)
- GlycoNet Integrated Services ($10.7 million)
- Wind Engineering, Energy and Environment Research Facility ($3.9 million)
So, who still needs operating funds?
Three incumbent facilities reapplied but were not awarded funds for 2023–2029:
- CMC Microsystems, which operates Canada’s National Design Network, provides over 10,000 researchers across Canada with critical technology services for designing and manufacturing microsystem and nanotechnology prototypes. This is essential infrastructure for research and development programs in areas that have a high impact on Canadian industry and economic growth, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, microelectronics, photonics, and microelectromechanical systems.
- The Centre for Phenogenomics, which provides researchers with a comprehensive set of infrastructure and expertise for research that requires mouse models. This facility enables Canadian research that is essential for life sciences and the development of new drugs and medical equipment.
- The Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy, which provides best-in-class electron and ion microscopes to over 500 users every year. Such microscopes are vital tools to study and develop new materials to solve technology challenges in areas such as clean energy, green manufacturing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and health.
If these facilities cannot adapt and find other funding, the potential impact of their loss on Canadian R&D will be enormous.
The award to the Canadian Light Source (CLS) is an outlier in the 2023–2029 competition results. It is the only facility to be awarded a much decreased amount of funding, although the official statement from the University of Saskatchewan does not hint at a cut. The CLS is by far the largest MSI-funded facility and was awarded $137.5 million in 2017–2022—nearly a quarter of available funds in that competition. The CLS’s MSI award in the present competition dropped to $97.2 million, and if that award is intended to last the full six-year term, it would amount to a 40% cut. (I say “if” because the CFI can award amounts for periods shorter than the full term.) Notably, the CLS has not stopped ramping up toward maximum capacity since it opened in 2004. Has it now outgrown the MSI Fund? Has another source of funds been identified for it? Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that the CLS will need another injection of funds from somewhere else to continue operating at current levels serving over 1,000 scientific and industry users every year as a national user facility.
There were 12 applicant facilities that have never received MSI funds, and after being deemed eligible for funding and invited to submit a full application, were still not awarded any. These include the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which only needs about $1.5 million per year but has struggled to find a stable funding source since the federal government’s decision in 2010 to discontinue funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
This group of applicants also includes the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR). The MNR has been of increasingly vital importance to Canadian health, science, and technology since the 2018 closure of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, as it is now Canada’s only major research reactor. The MNR has for many years operated fully on its commercial revenues, serving research and education purposes only as far as such revenues have allowed. Now, Canada needs the MNR to expand its operations to act as national research infrastructure, but a source of funds appropriate to this mission must be found. The MNR and its associated nuclear facilities at McMaster University are essential for medical research based on radioisotopes and for nuclear power and safety research. The MNR is also essential to the National Neutron Strategy—Canada’s strategy to rebuild capacity for materials research with neutron beams following NRU’s closure. Neutron beam users secured the largest investment in the 2020 CFI Innovation Fund competition to build up the neutron beam laboratory at the MNR and invest in foreign partnerships to gain access to essential research capabilities no longer available in Canada. The National Neutron Strategy envisions a neutron beam infrastructure program consisting of both domestic facilities and participation in major neutron sources abroad, at a cost of $20 million per year to be managed by a single organization that is now being created: Neutrons Canada. This scale and scope will place Neutrons Canada among other MRFs—provided it can secure the necessary funding.
But where will the operating funds for MRFs like the Canadian Light Source and Canada’s National Design Network come from, if not from the MSI Fund?
From where will funds come to enable emerging facilities to rise to the challenge of serving as national research infrastructure, if not from the MSI Fund?
CFI MSI 2023–2029 Results by the Numbers
Table 1. Successful and unsuccessful applicants to the CFI MSI Fund for 2023–2029. The percent change accounts for the difference in the number of years in the term of each MSI Fund competition (i.e. five years in 2017–2022 versus six years in 2023–2029). Increases or decreases deemed large, considering the effect of inflation, are highlighted in green or red respectively. Source: Canada Foundation for Innovation data; analysis by TVB Associates.