Scientific Research – a long term investment cut short by underfunding

by Alina He

Funding in scientific research has suffered a decade long decline in Canada. A recent reinvestment attempts to recover from this major setback.   

Most research is funded by government grants. In Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) are the major providers of federal research funding (1). The state of basic research in Canada was evaluated in the Naylor Report conducted in 2017 by the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science (3). The report concluded that research funding had been on a decade long decline in Canada (3). In 2018, the government made its largest contribution to research funding with an investment of $1.7 billion over five years (5). However, this funding will mainly go towards attempting to recover from the underinvestment during the previous decade.

Canada was ranked 15th worldwide in funding for university research and development as a share of GDP in 2017 (2). This ranking alone does not necessarily give pause. However, if we look at the change in funding from 2011 to 2017, Canada is ranked 34th worldwide (2). This reveals the decline in government funding placed Canada in a less competitive position on the global level.

Underfunding resulted in research labs cutting down on lab members, equipment, and even closing down (3). A survey revealed 51% to 63% of mid-career and senior investigators will decrease their number of trainees, and 30% to 40% are considering moving from Canada or stopping their research altogether (3). The short term consequences of underfunding are severe. However, the long term consequences are far worse. There is an immense loss of research that could potentially have significant implications.

This issue does not only affect researchers, but also society as a whole. There is a general lack of public awareness about how critical research is to the progression of society. Basic research is the foundation for the healthcare and technology we have today, and it is the pathway for future innovation. As Professor Robert Dijkgraaf puts it, research is a long term investment, like saving for retirement (4). The federal funding put towards many projects has been directly linked to their success (4). Meaning, our return is based on our initial investment. The underfunding in previous years demonstrated a prioritization of short term over long term goals. This short-sighted view has held research progress back, and societal progress is paying the cost.

For those of us just getting into research, a lack of funding is especially troubling as it directly affects our job opportunities in the future. However, this is an issue that ultimately affects everyone. There is hope that the funding situation will improve. The recent budget increase was a step in the right direction, but continuous federal investment is necessary in order for research to move forward in a strong and sustainable manner.




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