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Basic science makes historic gains in research-friendly budget

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau participates in a TV interview on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 27, 2018.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Going into this year's budget process Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he was already convinced of the need to boost support for Canadian scientists but that he had to think about "how we can have the biggest impact."

The nod to science was spurred by last year's landmark review of publicly funded research in Canada led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor. The review identified structural problems in the federal research funding system and pointed out a growing shortfall in how much money Ottawa allocates toward science relative to other countries. Over the past several months, scientists have rallied around the Naylor report and called on the government to act on its recommendations.

Now Mr. Morneau has partly answered that call with a research-intense budget that commits approximately $3.8-billion spread over the next five years for a range of science programs. A portion of this will be aimed at stepping up support for the three granting councils that distribute money for physical and life sciences, social sciences and health science researchers at Canadian universities and institutions. All told, by 2023, scientists can count on about $446-million more annually from the councils, including direct money for grants, research chairs and a new program to support interdisciplinary science and international collaboration.

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"I think the Naylor panel did the country a great service by articulating how important investment in science and research is, and this budget reflects that," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which advocates for academic research.

In actual dollars, the increase remains a far cry from the $1.3-billion a year that the Naylor report said is needed to bring Canada's research machine up to global standards. Anyone hoping for a bolder, more transformational move from Mr. Morneau was bound to come away disappointed. But the budget provides a 25-per-cent increase in the category of basic research, which is technically Ottawa's biggest ever and enough for Mr. Morneau to claim a historic investment in research that is "on brand" for a government that wants to be seen as pro-science.

"There are gaps, but they've listened carefully and I have a high degree of confidence that in the years ahead we can talk to them about what else would help," said Dr. Naylor.

The budget will also go down as a win for Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who commissioned the Naylor report in 2016 and who faced some ire from researchers when last year's budget kept basic research in a holding pattern until after the report's release. This year, in addition to an increase, there is the five-year arc of a longer term commitment from Ottawa that lays the foundations for more researcher input into science priorities and more emphasis on supporting early-career researchers who have anxiously been looking for signs that they have a viable future.

"My message to them and all scientists: We've gone big so that you can go even bigger," Ms. Duncan said on Wednesday.

The budget also signals a departure from several previous years' worth of big-ticket programs for a limited number of senior scientists by establishing an additional 250 Canada Research Chairs for early career researchers by 2021.

"My sense is that the time when we were seeing the trend in research chairs looking like a lot of old white guys – I think that time is over. And that's a really helpful message for young Canadians," said Jeremy Kerr, an ecologist at the University of Ottawa and co-author last year of a survey that revealed the dire funding stress many young researchers are facing across Canada.

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The influence of the Naylor report can be seen in other ways, including a move to stabilize funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Launched in 1997, the organization plays a crucial role as the principal underwriter of large-scale research facilities and equipment. But until now it has operated on sporadic chunks of cash doled out by successive governments every so often. With a newly annualized budget projected to reach $462-million by 2023, the CFI will finally be able to make long-term plans and dovetail its allocations with international research efforts and trends.

Another change that is likely to be consequential in the long term is a call for "a new approach" to so-called third-party research organizations. These include institutes and research centres that in the past have been favoured in an ad hoc way by successive governments sold on the need to support research specialties such as quantum computing or drug discovery, among others. Mirroring another recommendation from the Naylor report, the budget calls for a competitive process that could eventually trim back the number of boutique research entities that draw on Canada's science budget through their own dedicated funding streams.

"I think there's a message there that they're going to try to focus and consolidate around the primary funding mechanisms," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto.

Outside of the Naylor report, more than $600-million of the new science funding will be directed toward beefing up the government's own laboratories and bringing together federal scientific activities across departments. The budget doesn't specify exactly how this will be accomplished, but it likely reveals how Ms. Duncan will be spending her time this year.

The internal science funding also encompasses what the budget document calls a "re-imagined" National Research Council, an agency previously seen as sorely in need of new direction. Whereas the Harper government pointed the NRC toward short-term commercial objectives, the new vision will draw on $180-million over the next five years to enable the NRC's own scientists to make some high-risk research bets of the kind that the agency was known for in its heyday and that anticipate business sector activities by several years.

"I'm not sure what re-imaging means," said Matt Jeneroux, Conservative Party science critic in response to the NRC-directed aspects of the budget. "Hopefully we'll find out more in the days ahead."

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Katie Gibbs, president of the research advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, said she was encouraged in principle by the new direction for the NRC, adding that "traditionally one of the best uses for government funding of science is at that high-risk stage that industry often won't fund."

Finance Minister Bill Morneau tried on new shoes at a Toronto public school on Friday as part of a pre-budget tradition. Morneau says next week’s federal budget will strive to remove anything impeding the economic success of women. The Canadian Press
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