National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Post-secondary schools and students are looking to the Liberals to make a down payment in the post-pandemic economy by boosting research spending in the federal budget coming this week.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will deliver the government's next fiscal plan on April 7.

Universities Canada president Paul Davidson is expecting it to include some of the promises on research spending made during last fall's election, including funding 1,000 new Canada Research Chairs, and spending millions more annually on cutting-edge and "moonshot" research.

Davidson said making good on those promises could keep a cohort of researchers in Canada into the next decade rather than being snapped up in the global competition for talent that has heated up through the pandemic.

It would also keep Canada from falling behind peer nations like the U.S. and U.K. that have made funding research a pillar of their post-pandemic growth plans, he said.

"It's not all about the immediate relief," he said. "We're building a research ecosystem that supports Canada's innovation agenda, that supports our economic growth agenda, and that's why we're looking for investments."

It has been five years since a scientific advisory panel commissioned by the Liberals delivered a report showing how to boost funding for research and development that domestically had been slowly declining over the previous 15 years.

Multiple submissions on research funding were made to the House of Commons finance committee during its pre-budget consultations, collectively asking for billions in new spending on research scholarships, post-doctoral fellowships and granting agencies. 

In its final report released in mid-March, the committee recommended $120 million more on a recurring basis for student scholarships, $40 million more annually to expand research capacity at colleges, and expand publicly funded intellectual property to maximize the benefits of COVID-related research. 

Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said industries and institutions need help to commercialize research more easily. She also said the funding pool should be separate for universities and for colleges to recognize there is a difference in their research focus.

"If we're serious about competitiveness, if we're serious about productivity, we need a specific fund to our colleges and universities to commercialize leading research," she said.

Davidson also said he expects the government to invest money into cybersecurity for researchers.

But the pressure to get all this spending committed now has waned since the Liberals struck a deal with the NDP to get support in key votes, including the budget, in exchange for NDP priorities like pharmacare and dental care.

The deal is designed to keep the minority Liberal government in office until 2025, which gives the government a longer runway to fulfil its election promises than previously expected.

Davidson said the government could therefore use this budget to start a longer-term plan for research but spread out spending over subsequent years.

A longer time frame should give the government a chance to consider what research areas the country should focus on and the skills training required to get there over the next 10 to 15 years, said Elliot Hughes, who was an adviser to former finance minister Bill Morneau.

"Before we rush into saying we're going to do 'research,' let's try and tie that to a broader economic and skills training strategy so that there is some coherence, an alignment on all of those pieces," said Hughes, now a senior adviser at Summa Strategies.

"That takes time, and it takes focus, and it takes effort from a broad range of ministers and engagement from them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2022. 

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly this report was first published April 2, 2022.

The Canadian Press
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