Universities, industry, and research say substantial investments in research needed on regular basis

This article was originally published in The Hill Times on June 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission by The Hill Times.

By Marco Vigliotti

After a record allotment in 2016, the Trudeau government is weathering criticism for keeping funding for the three major research granting councils flat in 2017.

Post-secondary institutions and industry advocates are applauding the Trudeau government for rolling out millions in new funding for research since assuming office but say robust investments and other inducements are needed on a regular basis to ensure Canadian schools and businesses remain competitive on the global stage.

In the 2016 budget, the Trudeau government earmarked $2-billion for research spaces and infrastructure through the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund, and increased funding for the country’s research granting councils by $95-million, in what advocates called the biggest investment in a decade.

These councils, divided by disciplines, provide funding for domestic research projects. They are the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

But this year’s budget failed to keep pace and was the first in “many years” to not include any new funding for the major research granting bodies, according to Gabriel Miller, executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which represents researchers in the humanities and social sciences.

“Budget 2017, however, did not include the kinds of new research investments that Canada needs,” he told The Hill Times.

“The federal government should be expanding investments in the granting councils while making sure that a fairer share of investments are earmarked for research in the humanities and social sciences.”

Mr. Miller said that while research in the humanities and social sciences is “critical to our economic and social well-being,” SSHRC receives just 15 percent of federal funding to the granting agencies, which she lamented as a “missed opportunity.”

“After all, this research helps to address complex social challenges and fuels economic growth by unleashing innovation and creativity within our workforce,” he added.

“Canada has a significant asset base which can be leveraged in this regard as HSS [humanities and social sciences] scholars make up about 50 per cent of Canada’s post-secondary faculty.”

Finance officials revealed in the budget lockup in March that the budgets of the granting councils would remain flat until the government can assess the recommendations from the expert panel on basic science led by former University of Toronto President David Naylor, reported Science magazine.

As a result, NSERC will receive $848-million in 2017-18, while CIHR and SSHRC will take in $773-million and $547-million, respectively.

The report from the panel was released in April.

Pari Johnston, vice-president of policy and public affairs at advocacy body Universities Canada, said that the report from the expert panel found that Canada’s global research competitiveness has “eroded” in recent years, with funding from federal government sources now accounting for less than 25 per cent of total spending on research and development in the higher education sector, which she described as an “international anomaly.”

“We are urging fast action in this budget cycle on the panel’s top recommendation of significant re-investment in discovery research in order to help restore Canada’s global position in research and innovation and fuel the next generation of talented researchers,” she told The Hill Times.

“An increased commitment from the federal government will allow us to not only restore Canada’s position as a world leader in discovery and innovation, but also to boost the quality of education for the next generation of scientists and scholars, which in turn will build a more innovative, inclusive and prosperous future for all Canadians.”

Ms. Johnston added that if Canada doesn’t “nurture” early-career researchers and ensure they are able to receive necessary funds to grow their skills, the next generation of researchers “won’t be able to reach their potential.”

The Naylor report recommended significant new federal investments in investigator-led research to keep Canada globally competitive, and called for cumulative increases to the base funding of the federal research granting councils and other key research entities to rise from the current level of roughly $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion.

Although funding for the research councils remained flat, the Liberal government earmarked $117.6-million in funding over eight years in budget 2017 for 25 spots in its Canada 150 Research Chairs program.

The program is designed to attract top researchers from around the world to Canada’s universities by providing lucrative funding opportunities.

The government also committed $10-million over two years in the 2017 budget for the Community and College Social Innovation Fund, which the government says operates through community-college partnerships to foster positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities.

It also earmarked $90-million over two years for its post-Secondary Student Support Program, which the government claims will allow more than 4,600 indigenous students access higher education.

The National Research Council, a highly-esteemed government research body, was allocated $59.6 million in the budget for the current fiscal year to support business innovation initiatives.

Andrew Casey, president and CEO of BioteCanada, an industry advocacy group for the biotechnology field, called basic and applied research “fundamental building blocks” of the sector, and voiced support for government initiatives supporting the growth of domestic research.

He also applauded the federal government for earmarking $400-million over three years in the last budget to foster investment in firms seeking “late stage” venture capital and for plans to develop a new intellectual property strategy and the new, highly anticipated $950-million superclusters program.

Mr. Casey argued Canada is in a “very strong position” to be a global leader in the development and advancement of the “biotechnology solutions,” with biotech products and platforms supporting the transformation of key industries such as mining, oil and gas, forestry and agriculture.

He called on the Canadian government to recognize the importance other nations have attached to their respective biotech industries, and understand that they are in competition with these jurisdictions to “attract investors and highly skilled talent from the global marketplace.”

In that light, he said government and industry need to work together to “identify and strengthen” existing policy measures and initiatives, such as corporate tax rates, research and development-focused credits, and direct support programs, to ensure Canada can maintain its strategic advantage, while identifying other policies that can support the attraction of talent and investment capital.

The Trudeau government announced in budget 2017 that it would undertake a  “whole-of-government” review of business innovation programs. It also announced the creation of Innovation Canada, a new platform led by the Innovation, Science and Economic Development department, that will “coordinate and simplify” the support available to Canada’s innovators, according to the budget.

With the review of the programs ongoing, Innovation Canada will “serve as a one-stop-shop for Canada’s innovators,” reads the budget.

“Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs will no longer need to spend time figuring out which department to go to or which program best meets their needs,” reads the budget document.

“Innovation Canada will host the federal government’s simplified suite of innovation programs that will better enable and support Canadian innovators.”

Furthermore, the Trudeau government said it will also review the scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED ) tax credit, which looks to incentivize private sector research and development spending to ensure its “continued effectiveness and efficiency.”

Pamela Fralick, president of the pharmaceutical industry lobby organization Innovative Medicines, said her group believes a “slight change and/or re-scope” in the way government defines and credits investment in this space has the “potential to improve” Canada’s position in the global market, as competition intensifies for investment dollars.

“We believe Canada has the potential to be a leading destination for future funding and expertise in the life science sector, but it is critical that all invested stakeholders work together to make this happen,” she told The Hill Times.

The Trudeau government also earmarked $1.26-billion over five years for its Strategic Innovation Fund, which they say will consolidate and simplify existing programs designed to foster business innovation, namely the Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative, Technology Demonstration Program, Automotive Innovation Fund, and Automotive Supplier Innovation Program.

Ms. Fralick also singled out curiosity-driven research as giving birth to many “promising discoveries” that have played crucial roles in the life sciences sector.

“Within this ecosystem there’s a balance between supporting both basic research and commercialization research, both of which contribute to a healthy life sciences sector in Canada,” she added.

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, a lobby group for innovation companies,  welcomed the government’s budget commitment to review all business innovation program and voiced strong support for the creation of Innovation Canada.

In a statement, the group said that while the SR&ED program “clearly works well” for some of its members members, it found the level of frustration and criticism of the tax credit on the part of other members “unacceptable.”

But CATA expressed concern that there seems to be currently no plan or outline of the review process the government is offering to stakeholders, saying it would be “inappropriate” for a review that impacts thousands of businesses to be conducted in the “dark without appropriate consultations.”

[email protected]

The Hill Times

Select research, development, and innovation initiatives in 2017 budget

  • $1.26 billion over five years for the Strategic Innovation Fund, which will consolidate and simplify existing business innovation programming
  • $400-million over three years for new Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (provided through the Business Development Bank)
  • $117.6-million over eight years for 25 spots in its Canada 150 Research Chairs program
  • Up to $50 million to launch a new procurement program, Innovative Solutions Canada
  • Promising to develop a new intellectual property strategy
  • Establishing an annual $2-billion budget for the new chief science advisor and related secretariat
  • Over $10-million over two years for the Community and College Social Innovation Fund
  • $10-million over two years for the Institute for Quantum Computing, a Canadian research facility
  • $59.6 million for the National Research Council to support business innovation initiatives
  • $35-million over five years for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks
  • $90-million over two years for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program
  • Undertake a “whole-of-government” review of business innovation programs
  • Create Innovation Canada, a new platform led by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, that will “coordinate and simplify” the support available to Canada’s innovators
Universities Canada