The relatively modest research investments outlined in Canada’s new federal budget could make it difficult for the nation to recruit and retain scientific talent, Canadian science advocates fear.
The multiyear spending plan announced on 19 April includes CA$2.2 billion in mostly new funding for life sciences, but much of the money is targeted at boosting biomedical applications and vaccine development. Many research groups had hoped for greater investment in basic research at a time when, just across the border, U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed large increases for fundamental science.
Canada’s three main research councils will share CA$250 million for a new joint biomedical research grant program, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will be given an additional $250 million to fund clinical trials. Universities and research hospitals will get $500 million for bioscience infrastructure such as equipment and buildings. The government also plans to provide new funding for an existing funding program—known as a national strategy—on artificial intelligence, as well as to create two new national strategies for genomics and quantum science, with each getting about CA$400 million. Some CA$17 billion will go to efforts to develop low-carbon technologies, support green jobs, and meet conservation goals such as protecting 25% of Canada’s land and water by 2025.
Research advocates welcomed the focus on science as a way to fight the pandemic and rebuild the economy in its aftermath. “Budget 2021 attempts to balance the pressing challenges of the pandemic with a long-term view towards recovery and growth,” said the Ottawa, Canada–based science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy. But the group also noted that the budget did not include significant increases for fundamental, investigator-led research.
The budget continues the government’s investments in science that started in its 2018 budget. (Canadian spending plans often cover multiple years.) But the focus remains on targeted, boutique funding, rather than the broad support for research in general that Canadian scientists have long advocated for. “Politicians like to choose targets for investment because they want to invest in things that can return results quickly,” says Abraham Fuks, an immunology researcher at McGill University, Montreal. “But the science that helps the most is longer term,” he added, pointing out that Canadian scientists had, over the course of several decades, made significant contributions to the basic science behind the current vaccines for COVID-19.
Prior to the budget’s release, Fuks and his colleagues had called on the government to provide big increases for basic science at the country’s three main research councils in order to keep up with the United States in recruiting and retaining the next generation of scientists. This budget does not deliver on that request, he says, although he welcomed the funding for bioscience infrastructure and clinical trials in particular. “We don’t see the major investment in basic science that we believe is necessary” to sustain research that might not pay off for years, he says.