A much-anticipated federal funding program has invested $144 million over six years in seven Canadian-led research projects intended to solve major global health, environmental and societal challenges.
The large-scale, interdisciplinary research projects are focused on organ transplantation, spinal cord repair, repurposing marine by-products, biodiversity tracing and conservation of biodiversity through improved Indigenous health and well-being.
They were funded through the inaugural competition of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Transformation stream, one of three programs created in 2018 by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC). It was created to support international, interdisciplinary, rapid-response and high-risk research that would not be funded through existing programs.
“Real-world problems can only be solved by creative out-of-the-box thinking that emerges from ambitious, transformational discoveries, especially where the research crosses disciplines and thus fosters new insights,” said Alejandro Adem, Chair of the CRCC and President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), at the virtual announcement last week.
But critics argue that the NFRF adds little to the funding landscape and fails to address the critical need for increased investment in R&D.
"Quantitatively, it is small," said Michael Hendricks, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and a Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology & Behaviour at McGill University, in an email to Research Money, arguing that researchers are already better served by the Tricouncils core operating grant programs.
“The Fundamental Science Review emphasized that the future stability and growth of Canadian science depends on large-scale, increased investment in the core operating grant programs at the Tricouncils: CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. While there was a modest increase, it was far short of the (already conservative) recommendations, and much of it was through new, niche programs that duplicate administrative and applicant burdens but add no stability or additional value to our scientific enterprise,” he said.
At the event, Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne also announced 188 new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at 43 institutions through an investment of $151 million and 5,300 scholarships and fellowships worth more than $260 million.
The announcement does not represent new funding. Instead, researchers will have to watch Budget 2022 for indications of what is next for science funding in Canada, including whether the federal government will expand its investments in R&D as the United States and other countries have done.
Advocates have been calling on Ottawa to ensure Canada can compete in the global race for talent by investing in researchers and trainees at all career stages.
The awards announced last week aren’t enough to ensure Canada stays competitive, Hendricks said. Instead, he stressed the need for reliable access to operating grants. “Access to operating funds is essential for scientists, salary awards are not," he said.
Funding for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows is another persistent concern. Canada needs to expand the talent pipeline to support the innovation sector and drive economic growth.
In a 2022 pre-budget submission, the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities called for “tripling the number of Canada Graduate Scholarships for Master’s-level degrees and doubling the number for PhDs,” noting in part because Canada has a low level of advanced degree attainment relative to other OECD countries, despite having one of the world’s most educated populations.
Others, including Hendricks, have noted that stipends are insufficient, which hampers Canada’s ability to recruit the best students.
“Canadian trainees are woefully underpaid relative to North American counterparts, and the rise in the cost of living in Canadian cities has not been matched by stipend increases,“ he said.
In a statement to Research Money, ISED said the 5,300 students supported by the granting agencies’ scholarships and fellowships programs announced last week represent a small proportion of the overall number of trainees that the agencies support.
"The granting agencies are actively supporting the needs of trainees to build a globally competitive pipeline of next-generation researchers," read the statement, citing CIHR's Health Research Training Platform (HRTP) Pilot funding opportunity that launched in 2021.
The research training platforms are designed to attract a diverse set of high-calibre trainees and early career researchers, and equip them with the skills required for academic and non-academic careers.