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Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan pictured during an interview November 26, 2015 in Ottawa. Ms. Duncan is touting this week’s federal budget as a positive one for Canadian researchers, with its commitments to refurbish government labs, renewed funding for stem-cell and quantum-computing research centres and a $125-million initiative aimed at leveraging homegrown expertise in artificial intelligence. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan pictured during an interview November 26, 2015 in Ottawa. Ms. Duncan is touting this week’s federal budget as a positive one for Canadian researchers, with its commitments to refurbish government labs, renewed funding for stem-cell and quantum-computing research centres and a $125-million initiative aimed at leveraging homegrown expertise in artificial intelligence. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Federal budget positions Canada to lure scientists from U.S. and Britain Add to ...

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan is touting this week’s federal budget as a positive one for Canadian researchers, with its commitments to refurbish government labs, renewed funding for stem-cell and quantum-computing research centres and a $125-million initiative aimed at leveraging homegrown expertise in artificial intelligence.

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan, who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

At the same time, universities and institutes in Canada say they are fielding inquiries from scientists abroad who are considering their options. “It’s happening, and Canada has to be ready for that,” said Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada. He added that the budget’s notes on improving the immigration process for highly skilled candidates would help Canada recruit science talent while there was an opportunity to do so.

The new research chairs, dubbed “Canada 150 chairs,” would include funding over an eight-year window. While offering less money per scholar than the existing Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the structure of the program suggests it will be more flexible in its selection process, allowing universities to recruit quickly when opportunities arise. “Nimbleness will be absolutely key,” said University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon, who added that the long-term goal of the program should nevertheless be to bring scientists to Canada “who want to be here and who want to contribute for a very long time.”

In a different way, the new Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is intended to build on expertise within Canada – particularly in Montreal, Edmonton and the Toronto-Waterloo corridor – and keep a critical mass of top researchers from drifting away to Silicon Valley just as deep learning, a form of artificial intelligence pioneered in Canada, is poised to transform the technology landscape.

“Canada has talent in this area … and I think we’ve recognized that talent is a magnet for other talent from outside of our borders,” said Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which will oversee the national AI push.

Nevertheless, this week’s budget offers no relief for individual researchers struggling with diminishing resources and tight competition for scarce federal dollars. Last year’s budget increased the funding for the three federal granting councils that support scientists across Canada. Ms. Duncan noted that those increases would continue into the future and that a report on the federal research funding system, expected in the coming weeks, would help point the way to further improvements.

“That’s the piece we’re waiting for,” said Dr. Cannon, who hoped the report, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, “will position basic science for a future investment.”

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