2020: The Year in Canadian Science and Innovation

As the year draws to a close, we offer a compendium of key developments in Canada’s innovation ecosystem from the past twelve months. Of course, Canadian researchers, innovators, and policymakers devoted much of their efforts to combatting the virus and strategizing the pandemic recovery. But many other important advances were made in areas like intellectual property and research collaboration. 2020 was a hard year, but in many ways, the challenges we faced inspired unprecedented levels of cooperation across government, industry and academia.

Please enjoy this selection of important stories covered by our team of journalists over the past year, and have a safe and happy holiday season.


Shortly after the number of cases started to rise significantly in Canada, Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion COVID-19 response fund, of which $275 million went to research and medical countermeasures. The research mobilization moved with unprecedented speed. For the CIHR Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Competition, 150 volunteer peer reviewers assessed 227 applications in the space of three weeks, of which 96 were ultimately successful.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer quickly assembled a multidisciplinary expert panel of 15 researchers and clinicians to inform public policy decisions at the highest level of government. In the wake of the pandemic, Canadian researchers created two platforms to share information and coordinate the fight against COVID-19: CanCOVID, a government-led initiative, and COVID-19 Resources Canada, run by volunteers. In October, the CanCOVID virtual network expanded to add new features and functionalities to support the COVID research and response community.

With tens of thousands of SMEs facing extinction, the federal government committed $1.2 billion to support startups and rural businesses during the COVID-19 crisis, by way of the Regional Development Agencies, the Community Futures Network, the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, and Futurpreneur Canada.

By May, the federal government announced it had started developing a first-of-its-kind long-term research and pandemic preparedness strategy that will include a new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies Research. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) received $1 million to take the scientific lead on creating the strategy, which will cut across federal agencies, encompass social, economic, public health and fundamental science aspects, and require long-term funding, said CIHR president Dr. Michael Strong. The new COVID-19 Expert Panel, convened by the Chief Science Advisor, will provide guidance for the strategy.

Canadian health charities saw a 50% decline in revenue due to COVID-19, even as demand for their services surged among Canadians with chronic disease. In May, more than 1,000 researchers signed an open letter calling on policymakers to assist health charities in confronting the monumental challenges they face. “Without immediate support, these setbacks will have lasting impacts on health research in Canada, affecting hundreds of researchers, undermining millions of dollars in investments already made, and contributing to poorer health outcomes for Canadians,” the letter stated.


In the days before the pandemic, Canadian universities were enjoying a “Trump bump” in enrolment from international students who might otherwise have gone to US schools, thanks to our reputation for tolerance and safety. This trend was especially apparent among Chinese students, who were experiencing an increase in visa delays and rejections, owing in part to the rise of American protectionism and anti-Chinese rhetoric. Canada is second only to the US for research collaboration with China, and attracts more Chinese students than any other country. A study out of the University of Arizona found that the benefits of research collaborations with China outweigh the risks.

At the same time, the federal government spent the whole year weighing whether or not to allow Huawei equipment into the country’s fledgling 5G network. The delays have allowed Canada to partly sidestep tensions between the US and China while encouraging big telecom providers to go ahead with Huawei competitors Ericsson and Nokia., albeit with some sacrifice of the benefits of greater competition.


While continually sparring with Ottawa over its support of the oil and gas industry, Alberta made several key investments in technologies to rescue the oil sands, including a $15-million international competition to accelerate development of carbon fibre from bitumen.

The emerging hydrogen economy gained real momentum this year, including with a partnership between Ottawa and Alberta to  to produce, distribute and use zero-emission hydrogen fuel for heavy-duty freight transportation in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland in the Greater Edmonton area. Alberta is recognized as a lynchpin for the hydrogen economy, which offers a path for diverting the province’s natural gas industry. British Columbia and Quebec also have significant growth opportunities in this sector.

Meanwhile, Natural Resources Canada  is collaborating with The Transition Accelerator and other federal departments, governments at all levels, as well as the private sector and academia, to inform the development of a hydrogen strategy for Canada. The technical problems have mainly been solved, said Jeff Grant, a clean energy expert. “Now it’s more about the finances and reducing the financial risk.

In November, the Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task Force — which had been launched by the Transition Accelerator in the spring — released a report emphasizing that the Greater Edmonton Region has the right ingredients to become Canada’s first hydrogen node and tap into a wholesale market potential of up to $100 billion per year.

Forestry Innovation

The federal government sought to make up for forty years of declining investment in wildfire research and innovation with a $38.5 million investment in January. The move comes none too soon: forest fires are anticipated to increase in frequency and size in the coming years and decades. Although a hopeful sign, the government needs to continue investing in research; in comparison, Canada now spends about $1 billion annually fighting wildfires. “It is hard to understand how we can spend $1 billion a year chasing fires around the country and spend such a small amount of money on research to prevent or mitigate these fires,” says wildfire specialist Brian Stocks.

More investment across the forestry industry is deserved. Forestry has emerged as a leader in the emerging bioeconomy and accounts for 12% of Canada’s manufacturing sector GDP. The federal government has already recognized the potential: Ottawa’s Budget 2019 committed up to $253.1 million over three years, starting in 2020-21, to extend existing innovation and diversification programs. Improved procurement and modernizing the regulatory system are also essential to nurturing this innovative industry, say experts.

Climate Change

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC) launched in January with the help of a $20-million investment from the federal government over five years. The investment signalled a broader approach to tackling climate change, not just reducing emissions but also social, industrial and economic adaptations that will require well-defined “transition pathways” to transformational change.

Exclusive reporting by Research Money found that some of Canada’s largest universities are significantly cutting fossil fuels from their investment portfolios, while many schools are using a “responsible investing” approach. While few universities are fully divesting, the trend is picking up momentum and more institutions are decarbonizing their investments. “There has always been a moral argument in favour of divestment. But it’s the financial argument that’s fuelling the rapid amount of divestment decisions we’re seeing now,” said James Rowe, associate professor of environment studies at the University of Victoria. For example, a report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argued that the Canada Pension Plan should divest from fossil fuel companies, not only because of the climate emergency but also to reduce financial risk

Innovation Superclusters

The Innovation Superclusters also pitched in significantly to fight the pandemic. The Next Generation Manufacturing Canada allocated up to $50 million through its new COVID-19 Response Program to support companies producing critically needed technologies, equipment and medical products, while the Digital Technology Supercluster invested up to $60 million through its new COVID-19 Program.

In October, a widely publicized report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer determined that the superclusters were unlikely to attain their goals for job creation and GDP growth. However, reporting by Research Money revealed that the report was seriously flawed and failed to account for seven months of accelerated activity by the superclusters. Coinciding with the report, the Institute for Research on Public Policy published a paper recommending a new set of indicators to better measure the performance of the superclusters.

Indigenous Research

The Tri-Council of major government funding agencies created an Aboriginal Leadership Circle to guide implementation of a new Indigenous research strategic plan to ensure First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples lead and govern any research that involves them.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) developed a Research Affiliation Agreement to support research driven by First Nations communities.

IP and Tech Transfer

2020 brought many efforts to improve conditions for intellectual property in Canda. The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities released Cognit, a tool to connect researchers, non-profits, governments and businesses with relevant intellectual property and innovations.

In July, BDC Capital created a $160-million envelope of customized, patient capital” to finance IP development in Canada.

Following three years of federal action on IP, Ontario created the first provincial IP plan in Canada, whose aim is to “drive the province’s long-term economic competitiveness by prioritizing the generation, protection and commercialization of intellectual property.” Experts questioned its approach — prompting others to question the experts.

In December, the Innovation Asset Collective was launched with a $30-million “war chest” from ISED to protect Canadian IP. Canada’s first patent collective, the not-for-profit will build a pool of strategic patents to help data-driven clean tech companies defend their intellectual property in an often predatory global IP marketplace.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The percentage of women investors — a minority among venture capital investors — has barely budged in recent years, according to a report by the National Angel Capital Organization.

In June, thousands of academics participated in a strike for Black lives, stopping their academic work for the day in order to take action in support of ending anti-Black racism.

Emerging Tech

A consortium of Canadian companies representing the country’s most commercial-ready quantum technologies launched an industry association called  Quantum Industry Canada.

Launched in 2019 through a merger between the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) and the NEOMED Institute, adMare BioInnovations began fulfilling its promise by launching several biotech companies this year.

Government Science and Innovation

In November, the National Research Council launched more than 200 collaborative R&D projects valued at $93 million, enabling groups of its researchers to develop disruptive technologies alongside researchers from industry, academia and not-for-profits.

After a long wait, the federal government began rolling out its Laboratories Canada initiative, an ambitious 25-year master plan to revitalize federal research laboratories, starting with an initial investment of $2.8 billion. The huge undertaking will focus on the creation of collaborative research facilities where government scientists can work with colleagues and external partners.

Quebec’s provincial budget introduced three new tax incentives to support investments in startups and boost R&D and productivity in the province.

The need for a more secure digital presence for both government and businesses energized the movement to provide digitlal IDs to both individuals and companies. As argued by the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), digital ID is not only important for security, but also for streamlining how businesses engage with the gov’t and thereby facilitating the digital economy.


Canada’s agricultural sector made further investments in improving its ability to commercialize homegrown innovation. The new Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) was launched with $108.5-million to create and integrate automated and digitized solutions in Canada’s agri-food sector.

International Research

Ottawa demonstrated its eagerness to strengthen Canada’s ties to European science with the launch of a $10-million program to boost research collaboration between Canada and the EU ahead of our expected participation in the €100-billion Horizon Europe program, to launch in January, 2021.

Data Standards

The Chief Information Officers (CIO) Strategy Council published a new national standard for data governance in May. The standard aims to help organizations operate securely, transparently and uniformly in the digital world, by enabling organizations to create a “trust environment” for their third-party interactions.

In November, The tri-agencies, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Statistics Canada jointly launched the Canada Research and Development Classification (CRDC) 2020, a new standard for measuring and analyzing R&D that will unify and streamline data collection across these institutions and government.

Open Science

Quebec has been working closely with France and the EU to craft a homegrown version of Plan S, the European-born initiative to mandate immediate open access to publicly-funded research. “We are quite a bit behind France, the European Union and Great Britain, in terms of open science and access to publications. We want to catch up,” Quebec’s Chief Scientist Rémi Quirion told Research Money. However, in July, the European Research Council (ERC) announced that it would be withdrawing its support for Plan S, citing among their concerns the effect of Plan S requirements on early career researchers, and maintaining financial equality across European regions.

In March, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer delivered a roadmap to guide the widespread adoption of open science within the federal government, outlining a set of principles and recommendations to ensure federal science is readily and easily available to the public. The move makes Canada part of a global movement that advocates say helps maximize the impact of public investment in science. “Open Science accelerates science and innovation by enabling others to build on existing research, it also fosters quality and integrity in research by offering an opportunity for wider evaluation and scrutiny,” said Nemer.