OTTAWA, CANADA—Earlier this month, researchers attending Canada’s major annual science policy conference here got what appeared to be good news when Science Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced that the government would award 1 billion Canadian dollars for research projects. But disappointment soon set in. The scientists realized that the $1 billion was real money, not new money.
The episode added to researchers’ concerns about Canada’s science funding. In recent years, the country’s research spending has not kept pace with inflation, even contracting slightly as a percentage of gross domestic product between 1999 and 2019 – making Canada the only country among the advanced economies in the Group of Seven to experience such a decline. A large, multi-year funding push that began in 2018 has come to an end, and the budgets of the three most important federal funding councils remained unchanged this year.
“Research councils face a major challenge in funding researcher-initiated research due to stagnant budgets,” said Brad Wouters, cancer researcher and executive vice president of science and research at the University Health Network. “It’s hitting science in Canada in a big way.”
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), for example, has for years applied a flat 23.5% cut to all grants awarded in its largest grant program, Investigator-initiated Project Grants, to increase application success rates. Between 2018 and 2020, the reduction allowed the CIHR to fund an additional 87 scholarships 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 meant hiring fewer trainees and technicians. “It cuts out a whole person on some projects,” she says. “There is never enough money to do what we want to do.”
The funding crisis is hitting PhD students and postdocs hardest, says Wouters. As a result, undergraduate or postdoc jobs are becoming increasingly scarce, and those who receive grants or grants from the funding bodies are no better off, as the value of these awards has remained unchanged over the past 20 years. A master’s scholarship is only CA$17,500 per year, while a Ph.D. receives CA$ 21,000 and a postdoc CA$ 45,000. As a result, many graduate students and postdocs have difficulty living in the cities where their universities are based, and some are leaving Canada or giving up academia altogether, says Wouters.
Students and postdocs have called on the government to increase funding for grants and fellowships. At the Nov. 16 policy conference, Champagne said he heard their calls and that things were “moving in that direction.” So far, however, there is no sign that new funds will be made available.
Wouters fears this is a turning point for young scientists. “If we don’t invest more, we’ll lose a whole generation of talent,” he says.
Many researchers are also concerned that the share of funding for basic, researcher-led grants has declined compared to funding for areas and projects the government has identified as strategic priorities — such as quantum computing, genomics and, more recently, pandemic preparedness. Watts says that in 2001, about 80% of CIHR research funding went to investigator-led proposals, but that share has fallen to about 54%.
The government’s strategic concerns also shaped decisions about whether to fund individual projects, researchers complain. Last summer, CIHR solicited proposals for a $90 million funding program to support clinical trials. But it came with a twist. After the peer review, two other committees, one of which included senior officials who did not necessarily have scientific training, made the final funding decisions based on whether the proposals aligned with the government’s strategy for organic manufacturing and life sciences. In some cases, this meant that suggestions with lower peer reviewer ratings preceded those with higher ratings.
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 reviews. 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 spokesman for CIHR says bids were evaluated on how well they met one of several strategic goals, including better preparing Canada for pandemic response. However, these objectives were not included in the original call for proposals.
MacKay says giving non-scientist committees the final say feels like a violation of the idea that funding decisions are made by peers, which he calls a “core tenet” of the way Canada’s funding councils are run will. “Unrestricted research,” he says, “is how Canada outweighs our weight.”