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$635M investment from feds receives lukewarm reception from the research community

‘It’s a relatively rote announcement given these are stable programs,’ says Jim Woodgett.

BY ÉMILE BÉRUBÉ-LUPIEN | JUN 16 2021

A $635 million investment, announced by Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne on June 15, was received by the research community with a certain degree of indifference.

According to Mr. Champagne, this investment to “advance the best ideas, discoveries and innovations” will fund 4,800 researchers, 156 Canada Research Chairs and over 1,300 research projects. The subjects studied include climate change, racism, social justice and the fight against coronavirus.

With this announcement, the minister is hoping to make Canada an international leader in innovation while stimulating the knowledge economy. Participating in the event, Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and chair of the Canada Research Chair program steering committee, acknowledged the investment and support given to social sciences and humanities research. “SSHRC is very happy to have Canada’s support and your recognition of the essential role played by social sciences and humanities research in resolving some of the greatest conflicts of our time. This role has been emphasized throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The director of the molecular physiology research unit at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute and associate professor at Université de Montréal, Mathieu Ferron, does not share the same enthusiasm. For him, it feels more like déjà vu. He recalls a similar announcement a few years ago that led to confusion among some of his colleagues who thought it was an increase in funding, when this wasn’t the case. “As I see it, there isn’t any new money there. Yes, they’re supporting science, but these are actually the science budgets we have every year.”

“It’s a relatively rote announcement given these are stable programs,” said Jim Woodgett, senior scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto. He also added that any encouragement we can give to government to keep investing in science is good.

He feels that the federal funding that goes to the research chairs and granting councils is the bedrock of Canada’s scientific capacity and in the last few years, he has not hesitated to call for significant reinvestment from the government. “We’ve been reminded yet again how important science is to modern life and it’s incredibly important to have such sustainable support for long term research advances,” he added in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Minister Champagne positions this investment as one that will prepare students and scientists to become world leaders, Dr. Ferron maintains that Canada continues to lag behind. He sees the success rate of grant requests to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as a measurement of investments in research. “In the early 2000s, [the success rate] was around 30 per cent and it’s now around 15 per cent. It’s not that the budget has decreased, it’s that it has never increased,” said Dr. Ferron, who is still waiting for the major reinvestments called for in the Naylor Report. The report, published in 2017, recommended a nine per cent increase to annual federal research spending over four years for a total budget of $4.8 billion.

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  1. John Bergeron / June 17, 2021 at 08:29

    That the base budgets of the tri-councils(CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC) were specifically excluded from consideration by the recent federal budget may be a more accurate reflection of federal government priorities. That the 2017 Fundamental Science review’s recommendation of increases to the same base budgets of the tri-councils was not implemented will affect all basic research in Canada. So sad.
    John Bergeron

  2. Jim Woodgett / June 17, 2021 at 11:45

    Correction: I was Director of Research at LTRI until January of this year (for 15 years). Am now a Senior Scientist (again). Dr. Stephen Lye is Interim Director and is doing a great job.

    I’m also not exactly disillusioned – it’s just a regular announcement of planned competitions. I do think the government could bolster its research activities but there’s nothing wrong with the government announcing these Chairs and awards and, indeed, they form the fundamental support mechanism for the Canadian research community. However, I do wish we’d focus on what is done with the support rather than add up the dollars as that is what truly justifies the investment to Canadians. There’s also no reporting on the excellent grant applications that missed the cut. As Mathieu notes, at 15% success rates, we have many phenomenal ideas that are left on the shelf.