Published by Senator Art Eggleton on 06 April 2009
During tough economic times it is important that Canada be on the cutting edge in science and technology. Scientific and technological innovations will enable our economy to recover, our competitiveness and productivity to increase, and enhance our ability to tackle challenging problems such as climate change.
Science also pushes the envelope, where things once thought impossible suddenly become possible. From the discovery of insulin which turned diabetes into a manageable disease to the identification of genes in autism and cystic fibrosis, Canadian scientific innovations have improved many lives.
For the past 10 years the federal government has made significant investments in world-class research, infrastructure at Canadian universities, and has encouraged industrial investment in research and development. For Canada to continue to compete in the knowledge economy it must continue to innovate and stay ahead of the technological curve.
In 2007, the federal government developed the Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage strategy to provide the direction of government investment in science & technology. The strategy identified four priority areas - environmental science and technology, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and information and communication technologies - where Canadian research is world leading and where the government wants to focus the research effort. Also, central to the strategy was the need to increase private sector research and development investments, and increase the practical applications of research in Canada.
This strategy has come under fire recently because of reported funding cuts to Canada’s premier research funding agencies, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the National Science and Engineering Research Council. Under "efficiency and focusing" the three councils have been asked to cut $148 million over the next three years from their budgets.
This action by the federal government was not a surprise to many in the scientific community. Last year, the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee in the Senate, issued a report responding to the government’s policy. The report was a bi-partisan effort to engage the scientific community in better understanding the implications of the government’s strategy.
The Committee agreed that an intensive effort to direct attention to world-leading research to keep Canada on the cutting edge was an important priority. However, the Committee expressed that the government should not limit funding to the four priority areas but allow for some flexibility to support excellence science across all sectors and grow our entire science base. The Committee recognized that Canada has strengths outside of these priorities that are world leading and need to be supported. For example the Canadarm 2 and Dextre on the International Space Station are two terrific projects in robotics that would have not been developed under this strategy because they fall outside the priority areas.
Although the committee saw the advantage of enhancing Canada’s “entrepreneurial advantage” by encouraging the commercialization of scientific research, we expressed that this objective should not come at the expense of basic research. Because basic research is exploratory and is driven by the researcher’s curiosity, interest, and intuition, there is often no guarantee of short-term commercial gain. However, this research often leads to the next big leap forward in innovative ideas and technologies as its role in the development of a serological test for bowel cancer would suggest.
Also, the theory generation that basic research provides lays the foundation for applied research. New information and insights from basic research feed commercial activity by providing ideas, data and skilled human resources, thus leading to technological progress and market advantage. A policy that values applied science over fundamental science is shortsighted.
The 2009 budget did put money into science but the vast majority of the money goes to the building of scientific infrastructure. But without the necessary funding for research, I am afraid that we will have a lot beautiful buildings but with less people in them.
The government also needs to put further attention into the Scientific Research & Experimental Development program’s tax credit limits and regulations; providing incentives to increase access for Canadian firms to venture capital funds; and the standardization of intellectual property policies with the provinces and academic institutions.
At a time when our neighbour to the south is pouring $25 billion in funding for scientific research it is important that Canada stay competitive. I believe long-term, stable funding that builds our entire science base is needed. This will allow scientists to make durable plans and it shows that the government understands the nature of their work. It also signals that we want our home grown scientists to stay in Canada, and that we want to attract the world’s best scientists to Canada. Canadians’ standard of living is at stake, we need to address these shortcomings so that Canada can take a leading role in the 21st century knowledge economy.