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Paul Davidson, President of Universities Canada, speaks in Singapore on Feb. 23. Davidson called on Ottawa to boost support for scientific research in Canada to avoid losing scientists to other countries.PANDORA WONG

Canada’s universities are calling for a significant boost to research funding to keep pace with other wealthy countries and avoid losing promising scientists to a brain drain.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, the umbrella group that represents nearly 100 Canadian institutions, said other countries such as the U.S. and Britain are making serious investments to prioritize scientific research, while Canada’s young scientists are living on scholarships and grants that haven’t increased in years.

With a federal budget coming this week, universities are hoping to see more money directed toward research and to the graduate students who carry out the work.

“The U.S., U.K., Germany, Japan, Australia are all increasing their research budgets and Canada is saying that’s a lot of money. It’s like we’ve gone back 20 years to when Canada couldn’t compete in international research,” Mr. Davidson said.

“Every month we delay is a month where we risk losing talent. Our members are concerned that a brain drain is happening now.”

Mr. Davidson said the government should heed the call of the Bouchard report on the federal research support system, released last week, which called for 10-per-cent growth per year over the next five years in funding for the federal granting councils.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research spend about $3.5-billion annually, a little more than $2-billion of which is distributed in grants to researchers.

The Bouchard report, which was commissioned by the government last fall and led by University of Montreal dean of arts and sciences, Frédéric Bouchard, called for the development of a national research strategy and a reorganization of research administration across the country. It proposed creating a new body to co-ordinate and identify areas where Canada should concentrate funding.

The report also highlighted the impact of the shrinking relative value of grants on the researchers, often graduate students, who are employed to do the research work. It recommended funding for grad students and postdoctoral fellows be raised to levels comparable to those in other countries.

The scholarships for masters and PhD students that the government funds have not increased in 20 years and their value has been undermined by rising inflation. Students and professors have been calling on the government to raise the value of those scholarships, which range from about $17,500 for a master’s student to $21,000 or $35,000 for a doctoral student.

“This situation has significantly eroded Canada’s position as a global hub for the attraction and retention of research-enabled talent,” the report said. “Canada is at serious risk of another brain drain without reinvestment.”

The U.S. has recently announced about US$200-billion in funding for fundamental research. It already spends about US$40-billion more annually on health research than Canada.

Stephen Archer, head of the department of medicine at Queen’s University, said grant funding and funding for students are closely linked. Most graduate students are paid via grants won by a faculty member, he said, so if Canada were to increase the number and size of grants to researchers the money would go to alleviating financial strain on grad students and postdocs.

Dr. Archer said in his field of health research, the grant process needs to be enhanced. Stipends available to pay researchers are too low, he said. And the application process has grown so competitive in recent years, with about 80 per cent of proposals turned down annually, that even those proposals rated as excellent are sent back for resubmission.

“Even if you’re a very efficient and effective scientist, you have no realistic expectation that a first submission, or even necessarily a second submission, will be funded. That puts people on the line and makes it an unstable life for the scientists that we rely on to do the actual hands-on research,” Dr. Archer said.

Janet Rossant, senior scientist emeritus at the Hospital for Sick Children and a member of the Bouchard advisory panel, said the government should address the cost-of-living challenges that many young researchers are facing.

“Students and postdocs are really living below the poverty line in many situations. We run the risk of losing our trainees to better paid training and conditions in other countries,” she said.

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