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In Canada, scientists are struggling with stagnant funding

Lackluster growth in federal spending squeezes research community

Francois-Philippe Champagne gestures as he responds to a question at a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, April 2, 2020
François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s science minister, is facing calls to boost funding for research.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

OTTAWA, CANADA—Earlier this month, researchers attending Canada’s major annual science policy conference here got some seemingly good news when science minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the government would be awarding CA$1 billion to research projects. But disappointment soon set in. The $1 billion, scientists realized, was existing, not new, money.

The episode added to researchers’ gloom about Canada’s science funding. In recent years, the nation’s spending on research has not kept pace with inflation, and actually shrank slightly as a proportion of gross domestic product between 1999 and 2019—making Canada the only country among the Group of Seven advanced economies to see such a decline. A large, multiyear boost in funding that began in 2018 has run its course, and budgets at the federal government’s three main funding councils remained flat this year.

“The research councils are facing a significant challenge in funding for investigator-initiated research because of stagnating budgets,” says Brad Wouters, a cancer researcher and executive vice president for science and research at the University Health Network. “It’s hitting science in Canada in a major way.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), for example, has for years applied a 23.5% across-the-board cut to all awarded grants in its largest funding program, the investigator-initiated Project Grants, in order to boost application success rates. Between 2018 and 2020, the trimming allowed CIHR to fund an additional 87 grants per competition. But the average grant size shrank from CA$950,000 to CA$725,000.

For Tania Watts, an immunologist at the University of Toronto, the cuts have meant hiring fewer trainees and technicians. “It cuts out a whole person” on some projects, she says. “There’s never enough money to do what we want to do.”

The funding crunch is falling hardest on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, Wouters says. As a result, jobs for students or postdocs are increasingly scarce, and those who receive scholarships or fellowships from the funding councils are no better off, as the value of those awards has remained flat for the past 20 years. A master’s scholarship amounts to just CA$17,500 a year, whereas a Ph.D. gets CA$21,000 and a postdoc CA$45,000. That leaves many graduate students and postdocs struggling to live in the cities where their universities are based, and some are leaving Canada or giving up on science altogether, Wouters says.

Students and postdocs have been calling on the government to boost funding for scholarships and fellowships. At the 16 November policy conference, Champagne said he had heard their calls, and things were “moving in that direction.” As yet, however, there is no indication that any new funding will be forthcoming.

Wouters fears things are coming to a tipping point for young scientists. “If we don’t get more investment, we will lose a whole generation of talent,” he says.

Many researchers are also concerned that the proportion of funding going toward basic, investigator-led grants has been falling compared with funding going to fields and projects the government has identified as strategic priorities—such as quantum computing, genomics, and, more recently, pandemic preparedness. Watts says in 2001 about 80% of CIHR’s research funding went to investigator-led proposals, but that has fallen to about 54%.

The government’s strategic concerns are also shaping decisions about whether to fund individual projects, researchers complain. This past summer, CIHR requested proposals for a CA$90 million funding program to support clinical trials. But it came with a twist. After peer review, two additional committees, one of which included senior civil servants who did not necessarily have scientific training, made the final funding decisions, based on whether the proposals aligned with the government’s Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy. In some cases, that meant proposals with lower scores from peer reviewers jumped ahead of those with better scores.

For example, Dylan MacKay, a nutritional biochemist at the University of Manitoba, submitted a proposal to compare two approaches to treating kidney disease. Peer reviewers ranked it fourth out of 130 proposals. But the proposal was not one of the 22 selected for funding by the second round of reviewers. MacKay was shocked. “No one has seen anything like this at CIHR,” he says. “We never thought they wouldn’t follow the peer-review order.”

A spokesperson for CIHR says applications were rated on how well they addressed one of several strategic objectives, including better preparing Canada to respond to pandemics. But those objectives were not listed in the original call for proposals.

MacKay says giving the final say to committees not composed of scientists feels like a violation of the idea that funding decisions are made by your peers, which he calls a “core tenet” of how Canada’s funding councils are run. “Unrestricted research,” he says, “is how Canada punches above our weight.”


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