An election year budget that focuses on investments in research infrastructure and partnerships with industry but flatlines funding for basic science is being lamented as a lost opportunity by Canadian research advocates.

At issue is the funding for the three federal granting councils that distribute money for academic work in the natural, health and social sciences.

Last year, that funding amounted to about $2.7-billion, and this year’s budget maintains that. Because of inflation and increasing competition, that is actually a tightening of resources for rank-and-file scientists at Canada’s universities and hospitals. At the same time, those institutions are vying for a share of a $1.5-billion pot of money called the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which the government unveiled last year and is aimed at helping push selected projects to a globally competitive level.

“Big science is fine, but it requires a base of healthy little science,” said Jim Woodgett, director of research at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

The issue resonates beyond Canada’s research institutions. After winning a majority in 2011, the Harper government ignited fierce criticism by shutting federal labs and blocking federal scientists from speaking publicly about their work. Now, with two successive budgets that spotlight large allocations to research over many years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be looking to head off accusations his government is anti-science.

Last week, the budget drew positive reviews from Canadian universities, which were relieved that Finance Minister Joe Oliver avoided cuts to research in his effort to balance the books.

But others are less enthusiastic. Rather than re-energizing the research sector, they say, the federal budget maintains the status quo at a time when other countries are staking more on science as a long-term strategic investment.

The government says it is putting tax dollars where the research community wants them. That includes a $1.33-billion six-year renewal of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which underwrites up to 40 per cent of the cost of major research facilities. Similarly, a $105-million commitment keeps the lights on for the next five years at CANARIE, the organization tasked with providing digital infrastructure to Canadian research institutions.

“This is all about creating an environment where our research community can grow,” Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, told The Globe and Mail.

One extra bonus for science in this year’s budget is a $243.5-million commitment to secure Canada’s partnership in the Thirty Meter Telescope, a huge international observatory that is slated for construction on a Hawaiian mountain top. Given its high price-tag, many thought it unlikely that the Harper government would go for the project. In the end, the telescope likely benefited from the fact that had the Canada committed less money, most of the economic returns associated with building it would flow elsewhere.

The budget also reflects the Harper government’s preference for tying funding to partnerships with industry. A promised increase of $46-million for the granting councils next year will be largely for spurring collaborations between academic researchers and industrial partners rather than for basic research.

Whether or not science becomes an issue in the upcoming election campaign, some research advocates say the budget shows that the government’s approach to science is still too narrow. While it renews necessary commitments to research infrastructure, they fear not enough money will be left for people doing the kind of work that expands knowledge but does not always produce an immediate economic return.

“You run the risk of having these wonderful labs with no people in them,” said Deborah Gordon-El-Bihbety, president of Research Canada, an alliance of stakeholders in Canadian health research. “They’ve not solved the problem of how they make sure they get the right balance.”

An independent analysis of the 2015 budget prepared by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto based consulting firm, shows that when inflation is factored in, the money available for researchers through the granting councils has been in decline since 2009.

Mr. Holder said the investments in science in this year’s budget reflect strong and continued support in a year of declining revenues.

“For anyone to suggest that this government isn’t doing anything but putting science and technology first, then they haven’t read the document,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Apr. 27 2015, 9:38 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Apr. 27 2015, 11:37 PM EDT