The U.S. is besting Canada on investing in research and it will have consequences

March 22, 2023
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Paul Davidson

This op-ed was published by The Hill Times March 22, 2023

By Paul Davidson

The health of Canada’s research ecosystem is central to fostering the innovation and shaping the talent which will drive long-term prosperity for Canada and help tackle many of the big issues facing humanity. Yet at a time when many of Canada’s peers are making significant new investments in research funding, Canada is falling behind.  

This week’s visit to Canada by US President Joe Biden represents an important moment for the Government of Canada to reflect on how it can renew support for researchers in an increasingly competitive world. President Biden’s administration has made significant new commitments for research through the CHIPS and Sciences Act which amount to over $200 billion USD in funding for discovery research. Even prior to this, the United States blew Canada’s research investments out of the water; Canada spent only 1.84% of GDP on research in 2020, while the United States nearly doubled that amount at 3.45%. 

In the United States and across the world, Canada’s peers are stepping up because they see the economic opportunities of providing long-term and stable funding for discovery research. By fostering innovation and developing skilled talent, these investments will provide long-term returns as economies look to tackle sluggish productivity. The visit of President Biden must be a reality check for the Canadian government; without similar ambition, we will miss out on opportunities to bolster our economy. 

President Biden’s historic investments in research will also make it increasingly difficult for Canada to attract top talent and keep those we already have here. The US estimates needing a million new professionals in STEM fields by 2031.  How many of those will be Canadian? 

Canada’s universities develop exceptionally talented researchers and innovators who we need to address Canada’s long-term labour needs in the highly skilled sectors of the future economy. Losing that talent because of stagnant federal funding will cause long-term damage to Canada’s future prosperity. 

The upcoming federal budget, therefore, is a crucial moment to learn from the ambitious strategy of President Biden by renewing federal support for research.  

A good place to start in looking at the upcoming federal budget is the level of new support provided to Canada’s federal granting agenciesNSERC, SSHRC and CIHRwhich are the bedrock of Canada’s research ecosystem. They support research in all disciplines. Yet it has been over five years since the last significant commitment of new resources. In addition, it has been 20 years since the government increased the number and value of Canada’s flagship graduate scholarship programs; they haven’t even been adjusted for inflation. Needless to say, these scholarships have failed to keep pace with evolving research needs.  

Another piece to look for in the upcoming budget is action on the government’s own commitments from the 2021 federal election. The Liberal Party committed to creating an additional 1,000 Canada Research Chairs, which will help advance equity, diversity and inclusion. However, adding more seats around the table without increasing research funding and the necessary infrastructure support for labs and research facilities will not significantly improve Canada’s competitive position or meaningfully advance those goals. 

On the international stage, Canada has made commitments to join Horizon Europe, the largest international research partnership program in the world, but negotiations remain ongoing. We hope to see progress in those talks soon.  

In an increasingly competitive and uncertain world, now is the time for Canada to step up its ambition in research. President Biden has correctly identified the critical importance of timely investments in research to support a strong economy, now and into the future. We would be wise to follow suit.  

Canada’s universities have been pioneering innovation and research for decades and are ready to lead Canada through this next era of change. But universities need the support of the Government of Canada to do so. The upcoming federal budget will be the ultimate test of where the government’s priorities lie and the future of Canadian innovation and economic prosperity. 

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Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

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Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
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Tagged:  Research and innovation

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