Is the 2014 federal budget good for Canadian science? Parsing through the text of yesterday's budget document it's fair to say it's written to look that way.
For example, with renewed commitments to the TRIUMF particle accelerator and a cutting-edge quantum institute the government has made a strong show of support for physics. Together with modest gains for the agencies that fund basic research, the allocations seems tailored to answer those who say the Harper government's policies have been harmful to science in Canada.
But while the funding commitments come as welcome news for the many researchers who will benefit from them, critics say the budget is more of a cosmetic softening than a cosmic shift for Canadian science.
TRIUMF has been promised a combined $222-million in federal dollars, which will allow the lab to extend its operations into 2021. While the renewal is not unexpected for the 45-year-old facility, the timing is. TRIUMF still has a year to go in its current five-year budget cycle. By making a big commitment now, the government has removed any uncertainty about the lab's continuation and will allow it to plan for the future with more breathing room than it enjoyed in previous cycles.
"It has been pretty crazy in the past when you're waiting to find out if there's any money for the next five years," said Tim Meyer, a spokesman for the lab. "So this is a significant shift toward a more strategic and orderly process."
TRIUMF's portfolio of activities, including high-profile basic research (its scientists have participated in the search for the Higgs Boson and the study of antimatter), technology development, international and industrial partnerships and the production of medical isotopes puts it near the heart of science and technology. In recognizing it, the Harper government stands to get good play from a number of angles. Noting that the budget document makes mention of the Higgs boson, Dr. Meyer said, "I take that as a signal that the government is interested in fundamental science. Excellence matters."
Another nod to the subatomic was the budget's allocation of $15-million over three years to the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing, whose activities sit at the interface between pure theory and viable technologies. The amount is what the Institute was looking for to maintain its programs and hiring – in other word, not a bolt from the blue. Yet, the funding is a clear vote of confidence for the Institute, and the Waterloo region as a whole, which has packaged itself as Canada's silicon valley of the future.
The budget also earmarks $117-million over the next two years to maintain the problematic Chalk River facility, which is a crucial supplier of medical isotopes but which the Harper government would dearly like to make a contractor-operated facility.
In general, the budget makes little if any mention of science conducted within the federal government, including the National Research Council. The focus is clearly on academic research – a clear reflection of the government's inclination that universities – not government labs – should lead in research. (Critics challenge this idea, saying that long-term environmental monitoring and other forms of science conducted in the public's interest require strong government involvement or they don't happen).
Canadian universities have been pushing hard for a federal boost and they appear to have gotten it through the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which includes $1.5-billion over the next 10 years to boost research capacity. A further increase of $46-million per year going forward to the granting councils that fund academic research at Canadian schools is another plus for university scientists, albeit tempered by the fact that the amount will serve more as a buffer against inflation than as a launch pad for a dramatically expanded research program.
What may be more significant is that the new money is not specifically targeted at university-industry partnerships, a sign that, with an election approaching, the government is becoming sensitized to complaints that it has starved basic science at the expense of research with near-term commercial outcomes.
"This is a positioning budget for the next election," said Paul Dufour, a science policy analyst and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa. "It looks like they're starting to listen to elements of science community. The proof will be in the pudding if they deliver on all of this money." In fact, most of the real gains for science in the budget are promises that another government may or may not keep after the 2015 election.
Mr. Dufour noted that while the budget was scattered with funding for science it lacks a broader coherence that would indicate a long-term science strategy. That strategy has been promised for later this year. Yet, by committing to spending on such a diverse array of science projects, the government may have put its strategic cart before the horse.
Ivan Semeniuk is The Globe's science writer.