Canadian science wins billions in new budget
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration released its 2018 budget on 27 February and scientists couldn’t be happier. It includes almost Can$4 billion (US$3.1 billion) in new funding for science over the next five years, a significant portion of which will go to the country’s three granting councils. This is in contrast to the Can$1 billion in new science funding contained in last year's budget — almost none of which went to basic research.
The latest budget is “the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history,” said finance minister Bill Morneau in remarks to legislators on 27 February.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will each receive Can$354.7 million, while the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will get Can$215.5 million. All three councils will share another Can$275 million to support research that is “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk”. Much of this money will be reserved for early and mid-career researchers. The councils didn't receive any new funding in 2017, and have only gotten tens of millions of new money in past years.
Scientists had been lobbying Trudeau’s middle-left Liberal government hard for an unrestricted boost to granting-council budgets, as opposed to funding earmarked for specific research projects, which has been a hallmark of previous years.
The move follows recommendations from last year’s Fundamental Science Review, a report by an expert panel led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor. He was “relieved and pleased” with this “historic recalibration” in science funding. “They seem to have read the report more carefully than most governments,” he says.
On the right track
The budget doesn’t provide the huge boost of more than Can$1 billion a year for the granting councils that Naylor’s report recommended. But it sets the right trajectory and shows that the government listened to scientists and took Naylor’s review seriously, says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the University of Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. “It falls short but it doesn’t preclude adding to it going forward,” he says. “Scientists should be sleeping well tonight in Canada.”
Others were equally pleased with the result. “The government went further towards meeting the recommendations of the Naylor report than anyone expected,” says Alan Bernstein, chief executive of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto.
The budget includes Can$763 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which funds research infrastructure. The government has also pledged to make this funding permanent — in line with the Fundamental Science Review — with an annual budget of Can$462 million by 2023. Until now, the CFI was funded only in ad hoc chunks every few years.
Early-career researchers got a boost, in the form of an extra Can$210 million over five years for the Canada Research Chairs programme. The programme supports scientists at universities across the country, and the money is reserved for young researchers.
In fact, the "running theme" of the 2018 budget seemed to be focused on early career researchers, says Tina Gruosso, vice president of communications for Science & Policy Exchange, a Montreal-based campaign group run by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. "We were really happy to see significant steps in the right direction."
The budget still includes funding for some independent research organisations: the Institute of Quantum Computing, for example, will receive Can$15 million over three years. But it also states that the government will consider a peer-review approach to determining how to allocate such funding in the future — another recommendation from Naylor’s report. “It’s wonky, but really important,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. “It will change how funds are dished out in the future.”
Listening to the community
But scientists didn't get everything they wanted. There was no mention of renewed funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research programme, which is set to end this year. Without an influx of cash, several of the programme’s research stations in the high Arctic will have to shut down. Only one station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), received money to keep going until 2019 when the government provided Can$1.6 million last November.
Matt Jeneroux, the shadow science minister from the opposition Conservative party, says that the budget leaves many questions unanswered. They include the future of specific projects — including PEARL — and long-term support, beyond the next five years, for the granting councils. “There’s lots of colourful language, but I’m not sure what it means when the rubber hits the road,” he says.
Despite that, Gibbs says this budget is a testament to the campaign waged by Canadian researchers over the past year to ensure that the government took the recommendations in the Fundamental Science Review seriously. “It really shows the government spent the last year listening to the community,” she says.
Nature 555, 153 (2018)
Why are Canada’s scientists getting political?
Just a few days into her job as Canada’s new science minister, Kirsty Duncan found herself receiving a hero’s welcome when she took to the stage at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in November 2015. The audience of academics, university administrators and policymakers — not a group known for overt public displays of emotion — greeted her with cheers, whistles and a standing ovation. The enthusiastic reception was as much a show of relief over the change in government as a greeting for the new minister. The general election in October of that year had seen the Conservative government helmed by Stephen Harper since 2006 lose power to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party. Harper’s administration had made few friends in the scientific community. It had laid off thousands government researchers and prevented those kept on staff from speaking to the public or press. It had also allowed funding for science to stagnate. “Funding was a catastrophe, especially for fundamental science. Everything was targeted,” says Nathalie Grandvaux, a biochemist at the University of Montreal. “A lot of people lost their funding.” Duncan’s appointment added to the mood of optimism that surrounded Trudeau’s election victory. Duncan is a scientist — before going into politics, she studied medical geography and how the 1918 Spanish flu had spread. “I come from your world,” she told the crowd. “My life has been about the intersection of science and policy, and evidence-based policy matters deeply to me.” “There was a lot of excitement and hope,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. “Not just because of the change in government, but because it seemed Trudeau and his team had adopted science as a real issue in the campaign.” The Liberal government moved quickly on many of its science-based election promises. On 5 November 2015, its first full day in office, it reinstated the mandatory long-form public census, a detailed survey of Canadian citizens that takes place every five years, and that had been scrapped by the Conservatives five years earlier. That month it also announced that government scientists would again be free to speak to the media and public about their work (this was reflected in employment contracts from December 2016). The government’s first budget, in March 2016, included an extra Can$60 million (US$45 million) per year for the country’s two largest research-funding agencies (see ‘Funding boost’). And Duncan commissioned David Naylor, a former president of the University of Toronto, to write a comprehensive review of the country’s structure for scientific research, the first such review of Canadian science in around 40 years.“My goal was to return science and research to its rightful place, restore evidence-based decision-making, and ensure scientists had the funding, labs and tools necessary to do their research,” says Duncan. Source: NSERC/CIHR The review, published in April 2017, concluded that Canada had started to fall behind other countries on a variety of measures, such as research output and international prizes. It recommended ways to reverse the trend, starting with a major reinvestment in basic research of almost Can$500 million. It also called for more funding for research infrastructure and the indirect costs of research, and increased support for graduate students through fellowships and scholarships. In all, the report suggested increasing annual science spending by Can$1.3 billion, as well creating bodies to improve the coordination and evaluation of research. The research community embraced the report’s recommendations. “It called for what a lot of us had felt,” says Gibbs, “that there really did need to be an investment, particularly in fundamental academic research.” The report also gave the research community something to rally around and a concrete set of objectives against which it could measure the government’s performance. A grass-roots campaign to lobby the government to take up the report’s recommendations coalesced under the hashtag #SupportTheReport. Evidence for Democracy and a student-led group called the Science and Policy Exchange in Montreal helped to organize meetings between politicians and researchers, and organized letter-writing campaigns. This mobilization was unprecedented, says James Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld–Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto. “The research community spoke with one voice, which they hadn’t before.” An exhibitor shows off a wearable robot during a conference in Vancouver, Canada, in August 2018.Credit: Liang Sen/Xinhua/eyevine The pressure paid off. The government’s 2018 budget went a long way towards meeting many of Naylor’s recommendations. The government pledged almost Can$4 billion in new money for science over five years, including big increases to the bottom line for the three main funding agencies: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. A Can$275-million fund was created to support interdisciplinary research. There was also Can$763 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure, and, more importantly, that funding was made permanent; previously, the agency received ad-hoc cash injections. The Canada Research Chairs programme, which supports scientists’ salaries at universities across the country, received Can$210 million, which was reserved for early-career researchers. “The response in the budget was encouraging, with substantial new, untied money going into the granting councils,” says Naylor. “It was a boost to scientific enquiry that had been diminished under the previous government.” Recommended articles Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style > How one Canadian scientist is tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous communities > There were still limitations. The funding boost did not match Naylor’s Can$1.3-billion target, which many researchers did not see as overly ambitious, and there was no more money to support the indirect costs of research. And although the budget lauded support for students and early-career researchers, there was no direct funding for them through scholarships and fellowships. This was an issue, says Tina Gruosso, co-president of the Science and Policy Exchange. “Students say they see much more benefit from direct support compared with support via their supervisor’s grant,” she explains. Gruosso says that this is especially true for women and under-represented groups. Basic-science neglect The 2019 budget, announced on 19 March and the last before federal elections in October, contained small spending bumps for genomics and physics, but did not raise the high bar set by the 2018 windfall. Maxime Gingras, a research officer at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a trade union representing more than 16,000 federal scientists, said of the budget: “as our communities grapple with the impact of climate change, the importance of public scientific capacity cannot be overstated. And yet, with a couple of small exceptions, basic research and government regulatory science are mostly absent from budget 2019.” The budget report devoted just 6 of its 460 pages to building research excellence. It promised an additional Can$18 million over three years to the Stem Cell Network, a non-profit organization in Ottawa that aims to translate research into clinical applications and commercial products. Can$40 million was allocated to Brain Canada Foundation’s research fund, over two years, and Can$100 million over five years to Genome Canada, to fund “new large-scale research competitions and projects”. Two cancer charities received a combined Can$160 million. And TRIUMF, Canada’s particle-accelerator centre in Vancouver, is set to get Can$196 million, which, along with an extra Can$97 million of National Research Council funding, equates to Can$293 million over five years. The budget also promised the establishment of a Strategic Science Fund starting in 2022–23. The advisory body would subject future government funding decisions for research to greater scientific scrutiny. Finally, the budget allocates Can$114 million over five years to an additional 500 master’s scholarships and 167 doctoral scholarships a year. Although stores of goodwill had been built up in the early days of the Liberal government, they have been tested since. After the 2019 budget was announced, Woodgett told Nature that the government’s selective approach to funding, which is not peer reviewed, and, critics say, could reward larger ‘prestige’ programmes such as artificial-intelligence infrastructure (see ‘AI advantages’), abandons the Fundamental Science Review plan, adding: “Science thrives with open grant competition. It is asphyxiated by picking winners.” AI advantages For Canadian researchers whose fields have been selected as priorities for government largesse, such as artificial intelligence, Canada feels a comfortable place to be. Peter van Beek, co-director of the AI Institute at the University of Waterloo, says that the roughly Can$350 million provided in the 2017 federal budget for the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and the Scale AI cluster (part of a business-led supercluster initiative) has been “a total game changer”. The goal is to retain, and build on, the lead in AI that Canada developed when Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer in machine learning and one of three winners of the 2018 Turing Award, was toiling away in relative obscurity at the University of Toronto in the 1990s, before the field suddenly became the key to many of today’s most important technological developments for companies such as Google. The government’s investment has led many companies to set up research labs in and around the University of Waterloo, says van Beek. “The excitement is here now. In the past year or so, I’ve talked to probably 90 or 100 companies that want to set up here,” he says. “It’s a huge opportunity for our students.” Van Beek says that AI is beginning to transform how research is done in everything from astronomy to drug discovery, so investments in the technology will pay off in other areas. “This isn’t just a bet placed on a particular field, but a technology that is applied across science and engineering,” he says. And, although government scientists are officially unmuzzled, a survey carried out in summer 2017 by the PIPSC found that one in five respondents had been prevented from answering a question from the media or public since Trudeau took office, and 53% said that they still do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work. The government has also been slow to act on Naylor’s suggestion to create an advisory council to guide where new investments will go. A call for applications to join that new body, the Council on Science and Innovation, only went out in January 2019, and it is not clear when the council will be in place. The slow pace is puzzling to some observers. “To me, when you know you are going to have a number of years when you are going to be making big investments, that’s really when you want to put together your advisory body,” says Gibbs. “So it’s a bit surprising that the oversight body is coming almost as the last step.” Funcing opportunities in Canada Science costs money. How do researchers secure grants and manage the financial resources available to do good work, keep their labs afloat, and make the best of what they have? And the appointment of a chief science adviser — promised in Duncan’s 2015 speech — dragged on for nearly two years before Mona Nemer, a molecular biologist at the University of Ottawa, was installed in the post in late 2017. Just two years after her first rapturous reception, Duncan’s speech at the 2017 policy conference was punctuated with awkward pauses, when what were intended to be applause lines were met with polite silence — in some cases, the minister needed to prompt her audience to clap. The days of the Liberal government getting a free ride just because of what it was — or what it wasn’t — seemed to be over. Community collaboration Duncan insists that the government remains committed to supporting science, and to rebuilding the financial support that was eroded over the previous decade. She says her personal focus is on improving support for young researchers and for equality, diversity and inclusion — she highlights the fact that she is currently working to bring the Athena SWAN Charter (a UK initiative to support good employment practices in higher education) to Canada to support women and other under-represented groups in science, and supporting efforts to involve more Indigenous communities in research. And last summer, Nemer unveiled a new, model scientific integrity policy. But it will take time for all of these efforts to bear fruit. “These are big, systemic changes that we are making,” says Duncan. “That’s not easy, but it is important and it is necessary.” Despite the somewhat uneven progress, researchers are clear that there has been a major improvement in relations over the past four years. “It’s fair to say that, on many files, there’s no question we’re better off than we were five years ago,” says Gibbs. “But going forward we need to make it clear that the science box hasn’t been fully checked. There’s still more to do.” With a federal election coming in October, the united front that the scientific community has presented over the past five years has fractured somewhat, says Naylor, as some groups and institutions spot an opportunity to lobby for pre-election handouts. But he expects the spirit of collaboration to reassert itself soon. “The community has realized the power of solidarity and common cause,” he says. With this political awakening, no science minister, no matter how sympathetic to that cause, can expect an uncritical reception from now on. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
Sponsored: Expansive Networks Empower Early-Career Investigators
A conversation with ALONA FYSHE, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Victoria. The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) fuels scientific advances that address broad research questions and meet complex global challenges. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program recognizes the essential role of early-career investigators in driving research innovation and developing solutions to these challenges. The programme provides funding and training for emerging scientific leaders, and connects them with CIFAR’s interdisciplinary networks of established researchers. Alona Fyshe, CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, describes how her experience in the programme catalyzed her career. What are your research interests and goals? I want to improve how computers understand language by studying how humans understand language. When it comes to language comprehension, there’s a huge gap between what computers can do and what people can do. Many people are interested in building better learning algorithms. I’m interested in addressing the gap from another perspective. If we study the brain and how the brain represents meaning, can we build better languageunderstanding algorithms? I use machine learning techniques to process brain images that were taken while people were reading. From these I can study how the brain represents information, and how people combine words to build higherorder meaning. What drew you to the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program? Because I straddle two areas — neuroscience and machine learning — I saw there were two programmes where I could fit: the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind, and Consciousness; and Learning in Machines and Brains. CIFAR is very open to moving between programmes, so though my main association is with the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind and Consciousness, I attend meetings with both programmes. How is the programme structured? Each of the CIFAR programmes has regular meetings, which are very interactive and discussion focussed. I had the opportunity to present at meetings for both programmes I was interested in, and both were receptive to what I’m working on. We also have yearly meetings where all 18 global scholars get together. These meetings have been really amazing because we’re all early-career and share the same experiences of trying to build a lab and figure out how to be successful academic researchers. What resources and opportunities does this programme offer? There’s an amazing set of resources available to us. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars funding is unallocated and less restricted than many other grants. There’s also Catalyst Funding for risky projects that may be difficult to fund otherwise, which is only available to people associated with a CIFAR programme. They have leadership training, negotiation assistance, and media training. I also had an assigned mentor, and found that mentorship came from all kinds of people in a very organic way. I had opportunities to go to China, Japan, and Paris. The amount of travelling I’ve done in the last year has been wonderful to establish connections this early in my career. I presented to a group of scientists at the Learning in Machines and Brains meeting, including one scientist who suggested that I give a talk at conference he was organizing. At that conference, I shared the stage with many leaders in neuroscience, which was amazing and allowed me to get my name out there. That is an opportunity I absolutely would not have had if I hadn’t been part of CIFAR. What makes it unique? This programme stands apart from others because of the access you have to the phenomenal networks associated with CIFAR. If you look through the fellows for any one of the CIFAR programmes, they are some of the biggest names in their fields. Having the ability to meet these people at this stage in your career is not something you would get from a standard grant or fellowship, and the opportunities available to you are different because of the conferences and workshops you get to attend. What impact has this programme had on you as an early-career researcher? Getting this amount of funding early in my career freed up time and allowed me to focus on other things, which really helped. But I think the most important aspect of the programme to me was the opportunities I had to expand my network. It’s a snowball effect. You meet one person and they open a door. You meet another person and they open another door. These small opportunities make such a big impact over time. I have already seen its impact on my career. Learn more at: https://www.cifar.ca/research/global-scholars
How to make undergraduate research worthwhile
Practices might differ from country to country, but undergraduate students can be better served in research, says Shaun Khoo. One of the things that excited me about taking up a Canadian postdoctoral position was that, for the first time, I would get a chance to work with and mentor enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. I looked forward to the chance to gain mentorship skills while helping out future scientists, and maybe, eventually, freeing up some of my own time. As an Australian, I had never been pressured to volunteer in a lab — most Australian students don’t do any undergraduate research unless they enroll in an extra honours year, because the law prohibits unpaid student placements that are not a course requirement. This hasn’t held back overall research productivity in Australia, but it is a stark contrast to the North American environment, where many undergraduates feel pressure to get research experience as soon as they begin university. Most graduate medical students, for example, have previous research experience, and North American graduate schools have come to expect this from applicants. In Canada, nearly 90% of graduate medical students have past research experience1. Numerous articles extol2,3,4 the virtues of undergraduate research experience, but, unfortunately, evidence supporting the benefits of undergraduate research is limited. Most studies on the topic rely exclusively on self-reports that are corroborated less than 10% of the time by studies using more-direct measurements. For example, surveys find that undergraduate student researchers say that they have developed data-analysis skills — something that would normally involve lots of practical work — yet, when interviewed, most of them admit to never having done any data analysis. Like many postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, I spend most of my time with undergraduate students working on technical skills that they might need to work in the lab, but that don’t necessarily improve their conceptual understanding. For example, if I teach a student how to use a cryostat, they might become proficient in slicing brains, but they won’t necessarily learn how synaptic transmission works. Even if we manage to instil excitement for the intricacies of research in our undergraduate students, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority that continue in academic research, there will be no permanent jobs — we might just be saddling our undergraduates with unrealistic expectations. So how do we avoid wasting our time as mentors and our students’ time as learners and researchers? Here are my suggestions. Consider long-term goals. Undergraduate students should reflect on how their research experiences will prepare them for professional success. Should they be aiming for research experiences that are based on their courses, because it will better improve their understanding of scientific concepts? Will a given opportunity help them to reach their career goals by getting into a professional graduate programme? Can they commit to staying with a research programme long enough to become effective and potentially be a co-author? Acknowledge and offset opportunity cost. Undergraduate research requires significant time investments from both students and research supervisors. Undertaking such research might mean forgoing paid employment or other experiences, such as student societies, sport, performing arts or campus journalism and politics. Mentors can help undergraduate students by facilitating summer-scholarship applications or finding ways for students to get course credit for their work. Train for diverse careers. Most undergraduate students will pursue non-research careers or join professional graduate programmes. Those who try to continue in academia will eventually face a bleak post-PhD academic job market. Just as PhD students need preparation for a wide range of careers, so do undergraduate students need to build a transferable skill set. Mentors can encourage undergraduate students to build communication skills by, for example, encouraging them to present in lab meetings, or facilitating teamwork by having groups of undergraduate students complete a project together. Improve undergraduate research experiences. There’s limited non-anecdotal evidence that undergraduate research improves a given lab’s research productivity, or even student learning, but such research isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Before undergraduate students pad their CVs with research experience, they should reflect on what they will achieve by conducting research, and they should seek out meaningful projects to work on and develop relevant skills for their future career. For mentors, we have an obligation to consider the career development of undergraduate students and, for the sake of our publication records, we should aim to work with students who can commit at least a year to our projects. And, as much as possible, we should try to take the pressure off undergraduate students to do research, so that it can be an enjoyable learning experience rather than a box they need to check. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07427-5 This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at email@example.com. References 1. Klowak, J., Elsharawi, R., Whyte, R., Costa, A. & Riva, J. Can. Med. Educ. J. 9, e4–e13 (2018). PubMed Google Scholar 2. Smaglik, P. Nature 518, 127–128 (2015). PubMed Article Google Scholar 3. Ankrum, J. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05823-5 (2018). Article Google Scholar 4. Trant, J. Nature 560, 307 (2018). Article Google Scholar Download references