A reality check on Budget 2015

April 27, 2015
Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada

This op-ed was published on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website on April 25, 2015.

By Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada

The global economic uncertainty of recent years has led countries to focus increasingly on innovation and the commercialization of research. That’s understandable, given the undisputed link between innovation and prosperity. But this shift need not lead to a division – in institutional and funding priorities – between basic and applied research. Applied discoveries begin with basic research, and ensuring discovery research is robust, wide-ranging and unfettered is essential to innovation success.

It is understandable that in this drive to ramp up applied research researchers can get nervous about the plight of basic research. Indeed we see comment of this type emerging in response to last week’s federal budget. But as we examine the budget more fully, we see significant support across the continuum of university research, with an additional investment of more than $1.5 billion for research and innovation.

With $1.33 billion earmarked for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Budget 2015 marks the largest single announcement of Canadian research infrastructure funding. This is something the community prioritized, given the need for state-of-the-art equipment, labs, digital tools and high-speed technology to conduct, partner and share research results. This renewed commitment to CFI builds on the globally competitive research infrastructure that Canadians have built over the last 15 years and enables our researchers to collaborate with the very best in the world. Its benefits will be seen in universities across the country and across disciplines. Key research infrastructure investments – from digital to major science infrastructure – support the broad spectrum of university research, from theoretical and discovery to pre-competitive and applied.

The$45 million announced for TRIUMF will support the laboratory’s role in accelerating science in Canada, an important investment in discovery research.

We also see important investment in long-term basic research and international research collaboration through a $243.5 million contribution to the Thirty Meter Telescope. When completed, the TMT will give Canadian astronomers access to an instrument with unprecedented power to discover the cosmos.

And a wide spectrum of research will benefit from $105 million in new funding for CANARIE, Canada’s high-speed research and education network.

These new investments are part of the overall picture of current federal research funding. They build on previous commitments now being rolled out, including Budget 2014’s legacy investment of $1.5 billion over 10 years for the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The first round of CFREF funding, worth $350 million, will be announced in July 2015, with a second round worth $950 million to be announced in spring 2016. This is a significant injection of new funding for discovery research.

During Universities Canada’s international Innovation Policy Dialogue in Ottawa last fall, university leaders and policy advisors from Israel, Germany and Canada agreed that successful innovation systems have several common elements: strong support for basic research; the involvement of students as researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs; support for creativity and risk-taking in research; multidisciplinary collaboration; and strong university-private sector ties. We see these elements supported in Budget 2015 and through CFREF.

Students and young researchers are a crucial part of innovation success. That’s why Budget 2015 expands the scope of Mitacs Accelerate Program, which supports graduate-level industrial research and development internships.

Did our sector get everything it wanted in the new federal budget? Of course not. But as some commentators have pointed out, many other sectors look with envy upon the attention to research and innovation in Budget 2015.

We all know there is still work to be done. Canada’s granting councils are foundational to Canada’s research and innovation system. The dramatic increases of the early 2000s have slowed, and the more modest increases have not kept pace with either inflation or the growth in research activity by a new generation of faculty in full flight.

Looking forward, there is a need to work together to make a more compelling case for sustained investments across the continuum of research to support the impressive work of Canada’s 21st century discoverers.

The university community’s recent budget successes – CFREF and CFI among them – provide clues about to how to achieve extraordinary results: a compelling idea, supported by evidence, developed in partnership and advanced with vigour in a sequenced and prioritized manner. And so with the prospect of a federal election and emerging fiscal capacity, the policy window is open, and the work of preparing for Budget 2016 begins.

Tagged:  Research and innovation

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, representing the interests of 97 Canadian public and private not-for-profit universities.

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Universities Canada
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Nadine Robitaille
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Universities Canada
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