Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau tries on his new shoes—a budget day tradition—while meeting with children at Nelson Mandela Public Park School in Toronto.

Department of Finance Canada

Research stays frozen in Canadian budget

OTTAWA—Wind chills here approached -30°C as Finance Minister Bill Morneau unveiled the Liberal government’s second budget on Wednesday. Spring may eventually arrive in Canada’s capital, but the deep freeze for Canada’s research community will continue into fiscal 2017–18 as the granting councils received no significant boosts in funding.

Overall, Morneau’s budget proposes an $11.3 billion spending increase, to $247.7 billion. But at best, academic researchers can hope to tap modest monies either allocated or reprofiled for a bevy of national programs generally aimed at promoting “innovation,” particularly through partnerships between industry and universities, or from several smaller, boutique initiatives, such as one to develop a national action plan to respond to health risks posed by climate change.

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

Overall, the Liberals demonstrated a propensity for rejigging or modifying existing programs and labeling them with grandiose titles, typically in the form of “strategic plans” or “national funds.” Foremost among those, Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” A primary aim of the plan will be to “increase investment in innovation by business in six key areas – advanced manufacturing, agri-food, clean technology, digital industries, health/bio-sciences and clean resources.”

The details of most of the new strategic plans and national funds are sketchy, and Morneau indicated they won’t be released for months. But all appear broadly aimed at promoting more commercialization.

A new Strategic Innovation Fund, for example, will shuffle $75 million in new monies and $870 million from existing programs to support aerospace, defense, and automotive innovation into one pie that can also be accessed by “dynamic and emerging sectors, such as clean technology and agri-food.” A new Impact Canada Fund saw roughly $285 million over 11 years in largely reprofiled monies to resolve “the big challenges that face Canadians,” starting with the reduction of diesel fuel use in rural communities and the promotion of “machine-to-machine communication helps to ease traffic congestion and protect water systems” in Canadian cities. The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy ... (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

For the first time, the government will also aim to promote economic growth through its purchases, by allocating $37.5 million to a new program called Innovative Solutions Canada, modeled on the U.S. Small Business Innovation Research Program. It will provide funding for things like late-stage prototypes and will aim in particular to support companies led by women and other underrepresented groups.

Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser; provide $165.7 million over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Perhaps anticipating the findings of Naylor’s review (which may already be in the government’s hands), the budget also vowed to this year assess operations at the National Research Council and to review “existing investments in federal science infrastructure, including federal laboratories and testing facilities.”