Canadian Budget Pledges Billions To Fund Basic Science Research

The Canadian government unveiled its 2018 budget on Tuesday, committing nearly $US4 billion to a range of science programs over the next several years. It's the single largest injection of cash for basic science research in the country's history, but critics say it still falls short of what's needed.

In an effort to modernise Canada's approach to supporting researchers, Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals have pledged a 25 per cent increase in the funding of basic research over what was promised a year ago. Ottawa is hoping to bring scientists together from different disciplines to investigate areas such as climate change, ocean protection, and health, and to help early and mid-career scientists. In all, $US3.8 billion will be spent over the next five years on a range of science programs.

A hefty chunk of this money - $US925 million will go to Canada's three main research granting councils, namely the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Another $US275 will go towards "international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk" research, which will be allocated by the SSHRC, according to the Toronto Star. Another $US1.3 billion will be spent on new equipment and technology for university-based researchers.

"Budget 2018 represents the single largest investment in fundamental and discovery research in Canadian history," finance minister Bill Morneau told the House of Commons on Tuesday. "More than that, we will make sure that the new money for research supports the next generation of researchers, so we can build a science community that looks more like Canada: more diverse, with a greater number of women."

Indeed, the budget seems geared to support the next generation of scientists. To that end, Trudeau's Liberals have promised an additional 250 Canada Research Chairs for early career researchers by 2021. "My sense is that the time when we were seeing the trend in research chairs looking like a lot of old white guys - I think that time is over," Jeremy Kerr, an ecologist at the University of Ottawa, told The Globe and Mail.

The sudden emphasis on science and technological development runs in stark contrast to what Canadians are used to. For nearly a decade, the previous administration, led by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, went out of its way to prevent federal scientists from sharing their work with the Canadian public. The situation now looks discernibly different.

The Canadian government was spurred to action by the Fundamental Science Review, a report headed by David Naylor, a former president of the University of Toronto. In the report, Naylor identified structural problems with the federal research funding system, and how science spending in Canada lags behind other countries. In response to the 2018 budget, Naylor said it still falls short of the $US1.3 billion per year he asked for in the review, but added that the Liberals "listened carefully and I have a high degree of confidence that in the years ahead we can talk to them about what else would help."

Importantly, the new budget doesn't include funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric research program, which is set to end this year. This could result in the closure of research stations in the high Arctic. The Conservative shadow minister, Matt Jeneroux, complained that the budget was vague on details. And Charlotte Kiddell, the national deputy chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Student, said the budget didn't do enough to remove barriers for people who can't access post secondary education, particularly Indigenous students, as reported in the Toronto Star.

The budget is obviously not perfect, but Canada appears to be pulling itself out from Harper's Dark Age.

[Toronto Star, Macleans, Nature, Globe and Mail]

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