Why is Canada so miserly in funding academic research?

Guest Contributor
January 17, 2024

By Ed McCauley 

Dr. Ed McCauley, PhD, is the President and Vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. This op-ed first appeared here.

From energy to health care, Canada relies on research done on university campuses to foster the innovation that drives the economy. Yet the last two federal budgets contained no new financial support for research, while much of the funding already promised is expiring, with inflation eroding the rest. It’s a far cry from the support given to the scientific community two decades ago – and it needs to change.

The current federal government has long voiced support for science and professes to understand its value in helping to tackle our biggest challenges. While the investments it made early on in its mandate helped researchers protect Canadians during the difficult days of the pandemic, they have fallen well down its list of priorities since. According to Statistics Canada, federal spending on university science and research has already declined by 19 per cent in real terms since 2020 – a drop from $4.16 billion to $3.56 billion.

Yet major challenges, such as climate change and our competitors’ investments in science and technology, are precisely why the government must renew its commitment to our research ecosystem. Without the output of talented researchers, we cannot hope to compete in the high-growth sectors of the future economy such as quantum computing, semi-conductors or electric vehicle batteries.

While Canadian researchers worry whether there will be sufficient funding to keep their project going and support their best students, our peers are committing to bold increases in research funding. The Biden administration, for instance, has centred its economic agenda on a vibrant research ecosystem. The 2022 CHIPS and Science Act unleashed US$200 billion more for research and development, including US$81 billion more for the National Science Foundation.

The impact is already being felt. The value of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award has increased from US$46,000 to US$53,000.

Meanwhile, the signature federal program to support graduate students, the Canada Graduate Scholarships, has been frozen for two decades at only $17,500 for master’s students and $35,000 for doctoral scholars.

In his acceptance remarks for the awarding of Natural Science and Engineering Gold Medal this year, artificial intelligence researcher Yoshua Bengio emphasized how low graduate funding was forcing students to abandon programs here in favour of jobs in the United States.

The consequence of such a stark and growing disparity – more than four times less than our largest trading partner – is a growing brain drain of top talent. Already, universities talk of researchers being unable to retain their best graduate students, lured away by more generous financing abroad. And when the research is done overseas, its fruit is likely to remain overseas, with the jobs and prosperity that ensue. For the Canadian economy, that means lost innovation and productivity.

That’s no way to get ahead of tomorrow, as detailed in the University of Calgary’s new strategic plan, which is our blueprint for the future. It sharply increases research activity and supports for graduate students. But we can’t do this alone, and none of this is inevitable.

Just this spring, an advisory panel appointed by the federal government laid out a roadmap for our response to international competitors. Its final report (the “Bouchard report”) recommended immediate investments into federal research granting agencies and long-overdue increases to graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships.

“Canada has immense potential to lead the world into a more prosperous, just, and sustainable future through our knowledge and talent advantage, but we must double down on our efforts if we aspire to be among the global leaders,” the report says.

As we reach the middle of Parliament’s current mandate, it’s time to act. If this government wants to be remembered for truly believing in the possibilities of science, it must demonstrate that commitment by investing in fundamental research that Canada’s great universities can perform.


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