Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Canadian scientists smile as Liberals deliver a déjà vu budget

What a difference a government makes. After spending nearly a decade in the darkness of the former Conservative government’s so-called “war on science,” Canada’s research community finds itself stepping into the sunshine after the nation’s new Liberal government today unveiled a fiscal blueprint for 2015–16 that provides an immediate $72.79 million per year injection into the budgets of the nation’s research granting councils. The new money comes after years of static or declining budgets.

And in a bit of déjà vu, today’s spending plan also resurrects several initiatives from the last budget a Liberal government presented, in 2005, before the Conservatives swept to power.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised “sunny days” for the nation after winning a general election last October, and today Finance Minister Bill Morneau laid out a host of scientific goodies. And Morneau vowed that more will follow in the months to come, as the Liberals “put forward a new Innovation agenda which will outline a new vision for Canada’s economy as a center of global innovation, renowned for its science, technology, resourceful citizens, and globally competitive companies.” Morneau also fired a parting shot across the bow of ex–Prime Minister Stephen Harper by declaring that the Liberals will promote “evidence-based policies.”

Back from the dead

To those ends, the Trudeau government will resurrect two initiatives killed by the Conservatives. The first, a “Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund,” will provide $1.53 billion over 3 years for universities and colleges to “modernize research labs, retrofit buildings used for advance training, and expand on-campus incubators that support start-ups as they grow their businesses.” Former Liberal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale had promised in 2005 to provide $766.22 million for institutions to renovate everything from libraries to access ramps for disabled students and electronic learning networks. The current Morneau plan proposes to cover 50% of the costs of retrofitting labs and research facilities.

Morneau also announced he is resurrecting Goodale’s $122.6 million plan to promote more university-industry linkages by way of “large-scale integrated facilities.” They would serve as sort of incubator-centers for startup companies, venture capitalists and business service providers located near a university or government research institute.

That initiative had been premised on former chief national scientist Arthur Carty’s belief that Canada needed to develop community-based “knowledge-based industrial clusters” to promote economic growth. Carty had served as the nation’s scientific policy guru from 2004 to 2008, but then Harper obliterated the position. (Last fall, Carty told the seventh annual Canadian Science Policy Conference that the Conservatives were essentially hillbillies who created such a lamentable state of science affairs that Trudeau would have to find “the courage and fortitude to carry through with promises to eradicate such in-bred behavior.”)

Morneau subscribed directly to Carty’s economic-development model, saying in his budget address that it is one that “Canada can and must build on. We believe that businesses, post-secondary institutions, governments and other stakeholders can work together to accelerate economic growth. We will invest $800 million [$612.98 million] over four years to support innovation networks and clusters designed to increase collaboration and create value through innovation.”

The outlays won’t start flowing until 2017–18, however, as the Liberals will take a year to flesh out their innovation agenda. That “plan for change” will, among other things, “assess opportunities to increase the impact of federal support on Canada’s research excellence and the benefits that flow from it” and “examine the rational for current targeting of granting councils’ funding and bring greater coherence to the diverse range of federal research and development priorities and funding instruments.”

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget rollout—which is held in Ottawa in locked rooms—indicated that the plan will include the development of a “cluster mapping portal,” which will sketch regional economic strengths, as well as areas of business activity that can be directly aligned with local university capabilities.

Granting council increases

The planned granting council budget increases—$22.99 million for each of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), $12.26 million for the Social Sciences and Engineering Research Council (SSHRC)—will, in combination with deferred increases announced last year, result in the agencies receiving a combined $108.04 million in additional funding this year, after years of static or declining budgets. NSERC’s budget will rise to $865.83 million, CIHR’s to $789.21 million and SSHRC’s to $558.58 million. Support for the indirect costs of research within universities will rise by $14.56 million to $261.28 million annually.

The science spending, part of an effort to juice an economy that has stagnated because of a precipitous decline in commodity prices, particularly oil, also includes a promise to shell out $290.4 million over 4 years (commencing in 2017–18) to secure Canadian participation in the International Space Station through 2024.

Morneau also provided:

  • $181.75 million to Genome Canada to support the nonprofit agency’s regional genomics centers through 2019–20;
  • $7.66 million a year for 5 years in continuation funding for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics starting in 2017–18;
  • $10.73 million over 2 years to create 825 business internships and fellowships;
  • $15.32 million over 3 years in continuation funding for the Canada Brain Research Fund;
  • $38.31 million over 5 years to the National Optics Institute to provide R&D and technical support for businesses operating in the areas of optics and photonics; and
  • $9.19 million over 2 years for “research, training and outreach” activities at the Stem Cell Network.

The Stem Cell Network funding falls well short of the community’s call for a $383.11 million over 10 years federal contribution toward a $1.15 billion plan to “create a vibrant cell therapy and regenerative medicine industry and drive health care change.” Other community recommendations that the government didn’t fully follow included calls to establish a multi–billion dollar national dementia strategy and a stronger Canadian response to antibiotic resistance. It also didn’t follow a plan from a blue-ribbon commission chaired by former University of Toronto President David Naylor that urged the creation of a $766.22 million dollar Health Innovation Fund and a $766.22 million Healthcare Innovation Agency of Canada to “effect sustainable and systemic changes in the delivery of health services to Canadians.”

But the government did throw its financial muscle behind measures in support of its climate change agenda, including $1.532 billion over 2 years for initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, $99.61 million over 5 years for “clean technology research, development and demonstration activities,” and $15.32 million over 8 years to create two Canada Excellence Research Chairs in “clean and sustainable technology.” In another shot across the Conservative bow, Morneau provided $151.02 million over 5 years to reinvigorate ocean and freshwater sciences, including support for the Experimental Lakes Area, a freshwater research facility in northern Ontario whose $1.53 million per year appropriation that was axed by Harper in 2013.

Overall spending in Morneau’s 2016–17 blueprint, Growing the Middle Class, is projected to rise $15.71 billion, to $242.97 billion, with Ottawa running a deficit of $22.53 billion and the debt load rising to $497.05 billion. But the additional spending, Morneau argued, is vital. “A fundamental change must happen: Canadians need to believe that hope and hard work will be rewarded again.” 

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