2021: The Year in Canadian Science and Innovation

As 2021 draws to a close, we offer a compendium of key developments in Canada’s innovation ecosystem from the past twelve months. Like in 2020, Canadian researchers, innovators, and policymakers devoted much of their focus to fighting the ever-evolving COVID-19 virus and working towards economic recovery. But there was also a federal election, advances in quantum and hydrogen batteries, and a growing focus on the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels.

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.

Liberals win a minority, again

Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal Party pulled off another win in the September 2021 federal election, but they kept their minority and the seat count barely budged. In the course of the campaign, the Liberals made several STI-related promises, including a new DARPA-like research agency and reforms to the SR&ED tax incentive program.

The election was a reset for the government. The Research Money team spent much of the fall and winter waiting: first for the cabinet picks, then for the Speech from the Throne, and then for mandate letters. In the Throne Speech, Prime Minister Trudeau gave little indication of the federal government’s plan for science and innovation. The mandate letter released last week for Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, though, included a hefty list of to-do items (more to come on that in the new year).

Everyone wants a DARPA

The Liberals and Conservatives both promised a DARPA-like agency, and it looks like Canada is getting one. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) has been credited for spearheading the research, development and commercialization of many technological advancements south of the border, including roles in the development of the modern internet, GPS technology and the Moderna vaccine. But some experts are in opposition to the idea of a Canadian agency and say that the government should focus on IP ownership instead.

Big investments into vaccine manufacturing capacity and fight against COVID-19 variants

The vaccination push against COVID-19 was the biggest national and international story in the world. A new biomanufacturing strategy that the federal government announced at the end of July saw $2.2 billion from the 2021 budget go towards building new biomanufacturing capacity, including a Moderna facility. Experts told senior correspondent Lindsay Borthwick that Canada needs to consider other models to become self-sufficient in vaccine development and production.

The Canadian government also launched a $53-million strategy to combat COVID-19 variants in February, when experts warned about with a third wave.

Science, technology and innovation were winners in Liberal pre-election budget

Ottawa’s minority Liberal government introduced an election-style budget in April with $101 billion in across-the-board largesse, including billions of dollars in new funding across Canada’s science, technology and innovation sectors. The Strategic Innovation Fund, Canada Foundation for Innovation and the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) got boosts in funding, as did emerging fields such as quantum research and artificial intelligence.

Explosion of clean tech funding 

2021 could be a turning point in investment in the transition towards renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. Leah Lawrence, the CEO and president of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, told Research Money that “trillions of dollars” are going into public and private sector investments in clean tech, especially after new investment commitments at COP26 in Glasgow.

Canada’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 led to growing investments in areas such as battery storage. Meanwhile, enrolment in traditional oil and gas university programs declined.

Should SIF get so much federal money?

Nearly $3.4 billion in federal spending through the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) during the last three years has failed to improve Canada’s innovation performance and productivity, innovation and policy experts told Research Money in April. SIF defended its record, saying it delivered “significant benefits” for Canadians.

Responsible AI

Much more focus was placed on responsible use of artificial intelligence and algorithms this year. The federal government introduced its new algorithmic assessment tool in February, and an assessment is now required for any AI system developed or procured by federal departments and agencies. But there were early signs that compliance could be an issue, senior correspondent Lindsay Borthwick reported.

A quantum strategy

The Liberal government launched a quantum strategy for Canada in the spring, with Budget 2021 committing $360 million over seven years starting in 2021-22. A national strategy positioned Canada among a select group of nations, including the United Kingdom and United States, that are placing big bets on the potentially disruptive technology.

Geopolitical tensions with China

Relations between China and Canada continued to deteriorate in 2021, and researchers felt the impacts. CSIS began briefing researchers directly to counter security threats, including from foreign governments. In July, NSERC released new national security guidelines for grants asking researchers to complete risk assessments and develop risk mitigation plans if national security risks are identified. Meanwhile, in Alberta, all four major universities have paused the development of new research initiatives and the renewal of existing research partnerships with entities based in China.

Suppliers push to make Canada a player in the critical mineral market

Cheap labour and state-subsidized mines and processing facilities have enabled China to control more than 60 percent of the global market for rare earth concentrates. Canada already produces several critical minerals, but when it comes to rare earths, there is no Canadian mine yet producing rare earth concentrate from raw ore, or a facility to process that concentrate.

Research Money produced a two-part series on the critical minerals market and how Canada could be become a supplier of choice.

Open science didn’t benefit as much as expected from COVID-19

The pandemic pushed open science forward in Canada, but the gains have been modest, Research Money found in September. The results of an analysis of scientific practices, presented at the United Nation’s Open Science Conference in August, were underwhelming. Research papers and data on COVID-19 were not particularly accessible, and submissions to preprint servers — the most rapid way of disseminating new research results — had also declined.

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Mona Nemer, was more optimistic, citing the early sharing of the coronavirus genome and the accessibility of coronavirus research in international journals as examples of the role open science has played in the pandemic.

A new digital research infrastructure body

In 2019, ISED created the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization (NDRIO), a national not-for-profit with a mandate to create a broad and integrated Canadian digital research infrastructure (DRI) ecosystem. This year, it announced a new name — the Digital Research Alliance of Canada — and is on the verge of launching its first funding opportunities.

Research Money spoke with the Alliance’s CEO Nizar Ladak about the new organization’s journey and how it can ensure that Canadian researchers have the digital tools they need to tackle society’s problems today and in the future.

Ocean robotics investments starting to pay off

Investments by Canada’s Ocean Supercluster in companies commercializing robotics and sensor technologies is starting to reap benefits, according to Susan Hunt, the supercluster’s chief technology officer. The growth of Kraken Robotics, based in St. John’s, has been an example of the impact of these programs.