Column: From the Hill -- More research, please

Dick Cannings MP
By Dick Cannings MP
August 31st, 2017

In this technological age, information and innovation are seen as the key to building a strong, healthy economy, and the key to information is research.  As post-secondary education critic for the NDP, I have talked to many university and college representatives about their concerns and needs.  These representatives range from university presidents to professors, instructors and, of course, students.  Each group has a slightly different set of concerns, but common to all of them is a deep concern around dropping investments in basic research.

The federal government has talked a lot about innovation, but a report released earlier this year gave them failing grades for their lack of support for basic research, especially in Canadian universities.  The report, commissioned by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and written by Dr. David Naylor, outlines 35 recommendations to strengthen our universities.  However, it is the recommendation to significantly increase research funding that has brought the most praise from universities and colleges across the country.

Canada now spends about 1.6 percent of its GDP on research, and that figure has been stagnant or declining for the past decade while other countries have increased their investments.  The decline is happening at both the provincial and federal level, but since the federal government spends about three times the amount that the provincial governments spend on research, the decline is felt most acutely through federal funding councils.

The report  called for mechanisms to provide more funding for researchers early in their careers to kick start new research, and it suggested that a single body be formed to guide research funding, unlike the multi-council model used at present.  Dr. Naylor also recommended that the new government Chief Science Officer be part of that new advisory group.  Actually hiring this new advisor—the position was announced back in February—would be a good step forward to promoting research in Canada.

When I spoke to Minister Duncan about this before leaving Ottawa for the summer recess, she was clearly supportive of the Naylor report’s recommendations.  However, she did express some concern about whether her cabinet colleagues could be convinced that spending more on Canadian research is essential to keeping Canada competitive in the modern world.  I hope she is successful, because if she is not it will be difficult for her government to turn talk about innovation into action.

As Dr. Naylor states, “Governments cannot shortchange basic science and expect innovation to flourish.”

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