The COVID-19 pandemic has put science in the spotlight like never before. Governments across Canada have leaned heavily on science in the past year – from epidemiology to vaccines. Now, as a freshly elected slate of MPs return to Ottawa, there is undoubtedly a long list of priorities to tackle. But if the federal government hopes to continue relying on science to drive policy to meet the pressing challenges of the day, then support for science needs to top the list.
While science has been enjoying extraordinary attention, it’s not all sunny ways. Canada has a persistent challenge when it comes to supporting science – especially fundamental, discovery-oriented research, which is the very foundation of the science and innovation ecosystem. If there are cracks in this foundation, there will be cracks throughout the system.
Canada’s spending on research and development (R&D) as a proportion of GDP hovers around 1.5 per cent. (This includes business, higher education, and gross domestic expenditures on R&D. Here, gross domestic expenditures include total expenditures by all companies, research institutes, university and government laboratories.)
In fact, Canada is the only G7 country to demonstrate a continuous decline in R&D investments over the last two decades. Meanwhile, other G7 countries are using this moment to invest boldly in science. For example, Germany recently set itself an ambitious target of reaching 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2025.
If we look at the 2021 federal budget, the targeted investments in science feel like scattered puzzle pieces. How do these different investments fit together and what is the bigger picture? Even core federal science advisory functions are at risk, with the office of the chief science advisor facing an uncertain future as it nears the end of its second term in September 2022.
Fundamental science needs further investment
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One way to renew support for science in Canada, as advocated by many, is for the federal government to return to the recommendations outlined in the 2017 fundamental science review.
The report was commissioned by then-minister of science Kirsty Duncan. An expert panel, led by David Naylor, reviewed Canada’s fundamental science and research ecosystem with input from more than 1,000 individuals, associations and organizations. The resulting report outlined 35 recommendations to improve the state of science and research in Canada.
It was important to implement the recommendations in the fundamental science review in 2017. In 2021, whether or not we use the review as a guide, it is even more urgent to invest in fundamental research, especially as other G7 countries are forging ahead with bold investments.
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At Evidence for Democracy, we conducted a review of the report’s 35 recommendations, and found that nine are complete, 13 are in progress and 13 remain unresolved. As far as governments go, this progress is nothing to scoff at: the fact that 22 out of 35 recommendations have seen some form of action is a good start.
First, the good news. Since the fundamental science review’s launch, the federal government has convened a Canada Research Coordinating Committee, stabilized funding for investments in research infrastructure, and created a new fund to support interdisciplinary and high-risk research. Though some of these completed recommendations have caveats, these steps have nevertheless been critical in supporting Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has been varying progress on another 13 recommendations, with some blazing ahead, such as achieving better equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) outcomes. One example is the dimensions program: currently, 17 post-secondary institutions are participating in this pilot to collect EDI data and lead targeted actions, and more than 50 organizations have endorsed the dimensions program charter.
But not all progress has been equal. For some recommendations, progress is stagnating or falling significantly short.
The most prominent example is Canada’s lagging investment in investigator-led (or fundamental) research, which has moved out of the spotlight over the past decade in favour of priority-driven research. On this front, the 2018 federal budget committed a (much-needed) $925 million to Canada’s three major federal science funding agencies. But this fell short of the original recommendation in the fundamental science review, which called for an investment of $1.2 billion. This is the one recommendation that still deserves the most attention. If Canada hopes to ever catch up to its G7 allies, and to attract and retain the talent it needs, then investments in fundamental research need to be prioritized today.
Readers may argue that despite its large scope, the report’s mandate was not inclusive of the entire Canadian science ecosystem (this is true; applied and government science was not covered); that the progress to date is in fact a notable win (it is); or that the report is now out of date (it may be, given that this was requested by a government two mandates ago, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the global science landscape and requires new investment levels in science).
But if not the fundamental science review’s recommendations, then what? What is Canada’s next move to support science and catch up to our global competitors?
Science still desperately needs support, especially when it comes to investing in fundamental research. This long-standing problem is not going away – and neither is climate change, anti-microbial resistance, the potential for future pandemics and a host of other pressing challenges. In the end, the cost of not having the right evidence on hand to address these challenges will be much higher than the immediate costs of making bold, forward-thinking investments in science and research.
We have been at this crossroad before. What’s different today is that people across Canada have observed in near real-time the vital difference that science can make in addressing the challenges that define our future. This in itself is an extraordinary evolution. The question now is: will our elected representatives do what is needed to carry this progress forward?