Perfect storm clouds to watch

Tim Lougheed
September 6, 2023

Several linked priorities in federal R&D support could merge in the months leading up to the fall economic statement. Depending on how much mention they get in that document — if any — interested observers will be able to anticipate what might be coming in next spring’s budget.

Perhaps the most interested parties will be those in post-secondary educational institutions; universities in particular, who are feeling snubbed after several budgets with little in the way of new money for them. It bears remembering that the last serious injection of such money was in 2018, a budget marking $4 billion in research expenditures.

That boost won rave reviews, but much of that funding from 2018 was arranged on a five-year timeline, which will end next spring. It has made for some eye-popping announcements, such as one that appeared just before Labour Day weekend, which essentially noted where that funding was headed. The lingering question will be whether there will be any more where that came from, and if so, how much.

The answer may depend on two other developments that could come before the end of the year. The first revolves around the Report on the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System, which was published last spring. This document offered a comprehensive critique of the way Canada has organized its funding for science, technology, and innovation, specifically how a multi-layered bureaucracy complicates life for institutions and individual investigators, compromising the potential of the entire research enterprise.

The report included 21 recommendations, many of them centred on simply increasing the amount of funding available to everyone, from graduate students to research agencies. Université de Montréal philosophy professor Frédéric Bouchard, who headed the panel that drafted the report, has warned that such increases will be essential to keeping these people and organizations in Canada, since many other countries may present more attractive opportunities that already come with more funding.

The risk of brain drain is only increasing,” Bouchard told Research Money. “At the graduate student level and post-doc level, it’s becoming very difficult to explain why they should accept a Canadian offer instead of a generous U.S. or European offer.”

Read more: Build a focused research system, report warns, or watch the brain drain

Bouchard is far from the first to point out the lagging international status of Canada’s R&D contribution as a proportion of the country’s GDP, a two-decade decline that has been repeatedly emphasized at Research Money conferences. However, the report also included a recommendation to resolve the inefficient, de-centralized nature of research funding by creating a new federal granting council to supersede the work of existing ones. This proposal could prove contentious enough for policy-makers to set aside all or most of the panel’s other recommendations, none of which will be reflected in either this fall’s economic statement or next year’s budget.

The other indication of forthcoming changes will be any announcement pertaining to the Canada Innovation Corporation (CIC). Little has been heard about this initiative since Ottawa released a blueprint of its operations, along with a mention that it was “expected to begin its operations in 2023”. With three-quarters of the year now done, curiosity persists as to who will direct this organization, along with the $2.6 billion it has been promised for the next four years. 

Although CIC is being established to promote research and innovation in Canada’s private sector, its make-up and direction — including the opening remarks by those who eventually end up working for it — will offer an indication of where the rest of the country’s research ecosystem may be headed. If it does not at least gain a mention in the fall economic statement, that silence will be its own kind of announcement.

Likewise, if in the next few months there is no uptake or formal response to the report by Bouchard and his fellow panelists, or any hint of a major, Budget 2018-style boost for researchers, it will raise further questions about what research or industrial policy has been adopted, and when it will be more clearly articulated. Research Money will be scanning the horizon for clues.





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