U15 pre-budget submission: Canada must invest in talent, research and security to stay competitive

Lindsay Borthwick
October 12, 2021

The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities' message to the federal government is clear: as Canada emerges from the pandemic, it risks falling behind other nations that are investing massively in talent development and research.

In a pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in advance of the 2022 federal budget, the organization issued three broad recommendations: invest in people, invest strategically in Canada’s research ecosystem and invest in rebuilding campuses for tomorrow. (See Table 1.)

The U15’s focus on people, research and infrastructure is not unusual. But the specifics outlined in this year's submission reflect some of the most urgent challenges Canada faces as it moves beyond the current global crisis, including an increasingly competitive R&D environment and a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. 

“As we emerge from the pandemic countries around the world are responding to today’s challenges with massive investments in science, technology, and knowledge mobilization. They are convinced that highly educated citizens, equipped to innovate better and faster, is the key to success," the submission states.

"As a result, Canada is facing dramatically increased competition for talent, for scientific leadership and ultimately for the social, economic, and environmental benefits that stem from research and technology development.”

Take a holistic view of national security 

The U15 calls for infrastructure spending that will create universities that are green, inclusive and digitally enabled. That includes ensuring that they are accessible to learners of all ages and physical and learning abilities, and designed to meet the unique needs of Indigenous peoples of Canada. 

Infrastructure investments should also help protect Canada’s knowledge assets, according to one of the recommendations. “Address increasing national security concerns by investing in university security administration, cybersecurity, data protection systems and communications networks," it reads.

In an interview with Research Money, the U15’s Director of Public Affairs, Dylan Hanley, said the government needs to look at the "problems as a whole" to address mounting cybersecurity threats, the high costs of securing research data on campus and the overhead associated with managing national security risks associated with research partnerships.

The U15 is part of a joint Government of Canada-University Working Group, which was mandated in Spring 2021 to develop risk guidelines for research partnerships. The resulting National Security Guidelines on Research Partnerships were released in July. They will be applied to all federal research partnership funding beginning with Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Alliance Grants involving an industry partner.

Hanley said the new national security requirements served as a catalyst for the recommendation. “We're working to build in the research support mechanisms to help researchers as they're going through the process to manage that. But that's going to tax resources within universities in a significant way," he said.

Cybersecurity resources should also be a priority, according to Universities Canada, Polytechnics Canada and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan). CICan called for $1.4 billion to upgrade colleges’ digital infrastructure, technology and cybersecurity systems, saying: “Like all sectors, colleges and their partners are vulnerable to cyber-attacks, IP theft, and other economic-based threats to national security. We encourage the federal government to help create and maintain a safe teaching and research environment at colleges.”

Train, attract and retain highly qualified researchers

As countries look to rebuild post-pandemic and future-proof the economy, the need for a highly skilled workforce has never been clearer. A workforce that draws on the Canadian and global talent pool will be essential for Canada to realize the economic potential of research and technology in areas such as AI and quantum, agricultural technology, biopharmaceuticals and advanced manufacturing, which hinge on training, attracting and retaining highly qualified researchers. 

On the training front, the U15 is calling on the federal government to expand the pipeline by tripling the number of graduate fellowships for master’s students and doubling the number for doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows. This recommendation aims to address Canada’s relatively low level of advanced degree attainment and expand the pipeline of highly qualified researchers. According to the OECD, Canada ranks 28th for master’s and Ph.D. attainment, despite having one of the most highly educated populations in the world. 

Rising research budgets abroad, especially in the United States, could also make it harder for Canada to compete in the global race for talent.  

“I think that there's a growing awareness in the research community and for sure in the research administrative community of the potential for us losing some of our high-end researchers, especially to the United States,” said Hanley, adding that there should be a concerted effort to keep Canada’s research talent from going abroad. 

To address this, the U15 recommends expanding and reorienting the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program so that half of the new chairs are aimed at attracting new talent to Canada and half at retaining current talent. The organization also underscored the need to support the full range of research talent, including early and mid-career researchers and underrepresented groups. To do so, they suggest increasing granting agency funding by 10 per cent per year for the next 5 years, and 5 per cent per year for the subsequent 5 years.  

Hanley said the CERC Progam is just one route the federal government could take to make Canada the top choice of extraordinary researchers, noting the Liberal Party's commitment to add 1,000 Canada Research Chairs might accomplish the same thing. “The problem we’re identifying is for attracting new top talent but also retaining current talent,” he said. 

Boost R&D spending strategically

The U15 is also recommending strategic investments in Canada’s research ecosystem. The organization suggests the federal government “set a benchmark of achieving 2.5% of GDP invested in research within 5 years and achieved it though [sic] increased and balanced investment in both Higher Education and Business R&D.” 

That level of R&D intensity would match the OECD average. Currently, Canada’s national R&D expenditures are just 1.57 per cent of GDP and have been declining since 2001. By comparison, the United States invests 2.9 per cent of GDP, while Germany and Korea spend 4.9 per cent and 4.6 per cent of GDP, respectively. 

Hanley emphasized the need for more business-led R&D as part of a “whole ecosystem approach” to innovation. Investments in supporting research, in highly qualified personnel and in infrastructure need to go hand in hand. “It needs to go up altogether. It means an economic strategy that recognizes the prime place of research and research-intensive universities at the centre of a successful long-term growth strategy,” he said.

Table 1: U15 pre-Budget Submission in Advance of the 2022 Federal Budget


1. Invest in people 

The Government of Canada should invest in the people necessary to create a world-class research workforce:


a) Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows

b) Early- and mid-career researchers and underrepresented groups

c) Canada’s exceptional researchers

d) Attract the best and brightest

2. Invest strategically in Canada’s research ecosystem

The Government of Canada should invest strategically through a science-based industrial policy in research that will help ensure Canada’s ecosystem remains globally competitive: 


a) Set a benchmark of achieving 2.5 per cent of GDP invested in research within five years

b) Building on the national quantum and AI strategies, drive innovation in advanced technologies by making targeted investments in initiatives at the intersection of commercial opportunity and research excellence

c) Realize greater return on public investments by increasing support for the full cost of research, enabling universities to manage our national research enterprise, produce and help secure Canadian IP through university/industry partnerships, and undertake more comprehensive commercialization initiatives that bring research knowledge to market

3. Rebuilding campuses for tomorrow

The Government of Canada should invest in high-priority university infrastructure projects that will drive innovation and economic growth, lower emissions, protect Canada’s knowledge assets, and increase accessibility for all Canadians:

a) The Government should invest in campus infrastructure based on the core concepts of green, inclusive, and digitally enabled. These investments will help us meet our climate goals, increase accessibility, and improve our digital infrastructure.

b) Address increasing national security concerns by investing in university security administration, cyber security, data protection systems and communications networks


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