Another podium we need to own

Budget 2010 is a good start for Canada to own the podium for beautiful minds

Cuts to funding for basic research in last year’s federal budget caused angst and trepidation in the scientific community. Though relatively small, the cuts were magnified by their inclusion in a “stimulus budget” full of spending increases in other areas. The signal could not have been more negative for Canada’s researchers and their graduate students.   My colleagues and I launched the “Don’t Leave Canada behind” campaign and more than 2,500 researchers joined us in writing to the prime minister and to the leader of the opposition.


It is therefore incumbent on us, members of Canada’s research community to be just as vocal in recognizing the importance of the positive signal that the federal government is sending in the 2010 budget. The funding increases are relatively small but the message that the government acknowledges the role of Research and Innovation in the building of tomorrow’s Canada is unmistakable. The signal – distinctly positive this time around – is greatly amplified by the context of a retrenchment budget. That research and innovation are receiving more than 20% of the new spending measures in this budget is a good enough reason to rejoice. But the announced budget points to a much deeper grasp by our government of the global challenges we face. Here are three reasons why I believe it to be the case.

1. Recruiting and retaining talent: The government recognizes that Canada is in a global war for talent and commits $45 million to establish a post-doctoral fellowship program to help attract the research leaders of tomorrow to Canada, and to expand the opportunities for our top graduate students to pursue post-doctoral studies and commercialize their ideas. Now this is an outstanding investment. The kind of commitment that will attract international talent, ready us for the next upturn in the economy, retain our researchers when academia and industry are curtailing hiring, and protect our knowledge workers in strategically important sectors of the economy. The importance of this program cannot be underestimated. Indeed, Canada ranked the lowest out of 17 “peer countries” in the number of people completing their PhD, yet about one-quarter of doctoral students plan to live outside of Canada after completing their degrees. I do believe however that more efficient mechanisms for delivering the program could be used in order to leverage additional support from universities (through teaching), industry (through applied research), or provincial governments, so as to multiply the opportunities (say from 140 to 280 PDF per year). Moreover, while the program will undoubtedly attract talent to Canada, its suggested delivery mechanism cannot address the important issue of retention. Finally, the suggested 70K support for international PDF will help putting upward pressure on the 40K level provided by current federal programs for Canadians postdoctoral fellows.

On the other hand, Canadian universities hired in 2007 just 2,616 new full time university teachers out of the approximately 6000 postdoctoral fellows, making it clear that the majority of them will not be entering into academic positions. Furthermore, the lack of commercialization has been identified as the major contributor to Canada’s low placement on the OECD innovation scale. But – as Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of RIM, often reminds us – what has been forgotten is the crucial role of graduate students in the commercialization process. We therefore need an appropriate vehicle for building linkages for at least some of these PDFs with Canadian firms.

2. A comprehensive review of all federal support for R & D, because the government recognizes that “despite the high level of federal support, we continue to lag behind other advanced economies with respect to overall innovation performance, private sector investment in R&D, and the commercialization of research”. This is a greatly welcome development and a timely exercise that should also involve all stakeholders: the industry, the provinces and our best scientists. Indeed, while our granting system in support of basic research is firmly grounded on an internationally acclaimed peer-review process, the jury is still out on the myriad of existing “partnership programs” with industry, the latest of which being the “Engage” and “Interact” programs of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Canada’s researchers are major performers on the world stage and a review of our science strategy that ignores them would amount to a decision to put in charge of that strategy the weakest link in the innovation chain.

3. Supporting advanced research: The pillars of basic research in the country are its three research councils, SSHRC, NSERC and the CIHR. Budget 2010 allocates an additional $32 million annually, beginning in 2010-11. While this falls short of last year’s $43 million cut from the three councils, what is important here is the provided “room” to support basic research. In NSERC’s case, $8M out of the $13 million is earmarked for the support of advanced research embodied by the Discovery Grant program.  The government is undeniably recognizing that Canada’s basic researchers are major performers on the world stage. In this year’s Killam Prize competition, six of the contenders were associated -in one-way or another- to a Nobel Prize. We are in a global hunt for the best ideas and minds and Budget 2010 recognizes that this is also a podium we need to own.

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