Basic research drives real innovation and job growth.
Investment in discovery-driven research should be restored to levels spent 10 years ago so Canada can remain competitive.
One of the cornerstones of the current federal government’s science and technology (S&T) strategy is to require universities and colleges to collaborate with industry on scientific research. The assumption is that these partnerships will increase business investment in R&D and promote commercial innovation that will increase economic growth and create more jobs.
After eight years, it must be recognized that this approach has failed. Canada’s science and technology strategy is not delivering the promised investments and jobs. According to the latest data from Statistics Canada:
- Business investment in R&D has decreased drastically, from $17 to $14 billion between 2006 and 2013 (-17.7%), after inflation;
- Total investment in R&D in Canada was $27.7 billion in 2013 while they were $30 billion in 2006 (-7.7%), after inflation;
- Investments made by the federal government in government research is also down by 6.1% since 2007, after inflation;
- About 4,000 government scientists were let go as a result of federal cuts in recent years.
Even the federal government in its 2014 Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy recognized its failure and the decline in investments with respect to R&D:
“We see that while businesses in OECD countries spend an average of 1.63 percent of GDP on R&D, in Canada, the figure was only 1.11 percent in 2006 ($16.5 billion) and this fell to 0.88 percent ($16.2 billion) by 2012. Out of 34 OECD countries, this drop takes us from 16th to 22nd place,” (2014 S&T Strategy, page 8).
Underfunding discovery-driven research limits innovation, and job growth. The current federal government has underfunded discovery-driven research and government research, while increasing support for market-driven research.
One impact of the declining support for discovery-driven research has been a marked decline in the number of promising research projects that can be funded. The success rate for NSERC’s Discovery Grants has fallen from 71% in 2008 to 65% in 2015. The success rate for SSHRC’s standard research grant, now called the Insight Grant, has dropped from 40% in 2006 to just 23% in 2014. For CIHR, the percentage of successful applicants is 18% in 2014, down from 31% in 2009.
A narrowing focus on commercialization removes the creativity and unexpected discovery key to discovery-driven research and innovation, and distorts the focus of scientific investigation. In the area of medical research, for instance, the obsession with commercial outcomes has placed an emphasis on minor modifications to existing drugs and devices, rather than fundamental explorations of disease prevention and population health.
We should remember that discovery-driven research led to many key unanticipated innovations such as X-rays, nylon, Teflon, GPS technology, informatics, superconductivity and medical imaging.
What we want:
Investment in discovery-driven research should be restored to levels spent 10 years ago so Canada can remain competitive. Strong public investment in discovery-driven research coupled with private investments in market-driven innovations will create to social, economic and environmental outcomes that benefit everyone.
- The federal government should restore the level of investment in R&D spent a decade ago to remain competitive with other developed countries. This represents at least $2.5 billion of new R&D money in 2015/16 to match 2006 R&D spending in Canada.
- The federal government should re-invest in discovery-driven research and substantially increase the base funding of the three federal research granting councils (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR).
Recent spending announcements will do little to reverse the problem. Budget 2015 announced just $150 million per year over ten years for the Canada First Excellence Research Fund and $220 million per year over six years for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Much more needs to be done to repair the damage done to Canada’s research infrastructure.
Watch Dalhousie Professor Tom Duck discuss the consequences of cuts to high arctic and basic research in Canada:
University of Victoria English Professor Elizabeth Hodgson talks about the cuts to Social Science and Humanities research:
Professor Kevin Kane from University of Alberta’s Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology on why we need to invest in basic research: