New article “Budget 2010: Starting to Get the Message” by CAP President Robert Mann

Budget 2010: Starting to Get the Message
by Robert Mann, President, Canadian Association of Physicists

Looks like they’re starting to get the message.

That’s the short answer to the question that so often gets asked around Budget time about government support for research and innovation in science and technology. This year’s Budget represents a clear, if somewhat modest, commitment to basic research in addition to commercialization aspects and targeted research that all too often seem to push basic research to the back burner of the government agenda.

The tone was set with the speech from the throne, which recognized Canada’s intellectual resources as being of equal importance with its natural resources in furthering the development and prosperity of Canadian society. This tone was carried through in the Budget, which contained a number of welcome initiatives and priorities that indicated the government had indeed been listening to Canada’s scientists.

The new big-ticket items were funding of $397M over 5 years for the RADARSAT Constellation mission, $222M over 5 years for TRIUMF (Tri-University Meson Facility), and $100M over 4 years for the Forestry industry. A project of the Canadian Space Agency, who will contribute another $100M to the mission, RADARSAT is a fleet of three next-generation satellites that will be used to support surveillance, defence and environmental monitoring of landslides, floods, fires, etc. It will improve upon existing systems by reducing service interruptions and providing more frequent area coverage, particularly for maritime and arctic regions. The TRIUMF funding is for its next 5-year plan, whose flagship program is the world-class ARIEL (Advanced Rare-IsotopE Laboratory) program, consisting of an electron-linac, a specialized actinide beam line that will create beams of heavy elements such as thorium, high-power target stations, a mass separator and a connection to the ISAC (Isotope Separator and ACcelerator) facility. The exotic isotopes it produces will be used to study the nature of stars and develop new ways of making medical isotopes, and its superconducting accelerator technology will have a number of spin-off applications. While the renewed funding signals a welcome ongoing commitment to the basic science done at TRIUMF, it is unfortunately a flat funding scenario that is not compatible with a full ARIEL program by 2015. TRIUMF will need to reprioritize its commitments and seek additional resources for ARIEL to become a reality. The next five years will, however, see an expansion of TRIUMF’s nuclear medicine program, full support for the ATLAS Tier-1 data centre, refurbishment of the cyclotron and support for related science programs (e.g. ISAC), along with renewal of ongoing commitments to SNOLAB, and other international accelerator and detector facilities. The funding for Forestry is via the Next Generation Renewable Power Initiative and is allocated for clean energy technologies in this sector, a welcome if somewhat limited recognition of the ongoing importance of green technology.

The importance of innovation — improved and creative ways of doing things of value — has been stressed by half a dozen recent government commissioned reports as being essential in increasing the productivity and competitiveness of Canada’s private sector, which in turn is instrumental for our future prosperity. The 2010 Budget recognized this by allocating new money for several innovation stratagems. Genome Canada was given $75-million to conduct targeted research on forestry and the environment and to fund regional genomics innovation centres. $135M over 2 years was allocated to the regional innovation clusters program of the National Research Council. Regional development agencies were given $49M in annual funding ($15M Quebec; $19M Atlantic; $15M Western) to support innovation across Canada. $8M over 2 years was apportioned to extend the International Science and Technology Partnerships Program and $15M was given to the College and Community Innovation Program to fund research collaborations between colleges and businesses. In what could have been a much leaner Budget, this funding should be viewed as recognition that the government has matched important dollars with its innovation rhetoric.

The importance of basic research was also tangibly recognized. Of particular note is the new postdoctoral program, worth $9M annually (totalling $45M over 5 years) to the granting councils. While details of its implementation remain to be seen (including the allocation of this money over the three granting councils), recognition of this important research demographic is long overdue. Canada has long lagged other nations in nurturing scientists in the years they must spend between obtaining their PhDs and securing their first long-term position of employment, whether in academia, government, or industry. The recent Vanier scholarships acutely highlighted this point: worth $50,000/yr to Canada’s most promising graduate students, they dwarfed NSERC’s postdoctoral fellowship program, which awarded $40,000/yr to Canada’s most promising postdoctoral fellows. These new fellowships, 140 in total, will be worth $70,000/yr for 2 years to each fellow, an amount in support of intellectual talent of the highest calibre. Even more importantly, the Budget document states that this will “attract the research leaders of tomorrow to Canada”. This presumably means that these fellowships will be tenable only at Canadian universities and research institutions, a welcome contrast to the existing program that permits the fellowships to be taken up anywhere in the world, effectively exporting our top postdoctoral talent.

The three granting councils got a $32M annual increase in base funding, half of which went to CIHR and $3M of which went to SSHRC. The remaining $13M for NSERC was split into $8M/yr to strengthen support for “advanced” (presumably basic) research and $5M/yr for closer research collaborations between academia and the private sector. This reverses, albeit somewhat modestly, the disturbing trend in last year’s Budget that saw cuts to basic research in the tricouncils. There is also $8M per year allocated for the indirect costs of research, another welcome recognition of the true cost of doing good science.

In addition to all of the above there is still another $1B — the second half of $2B announced last year — to support maintenance, repair, and construction at colleges and universities. While not as attractive to announce as a new program or policy, this funding is essential in providing desperately needed renewal of basic facilities and physical plant at Canada’s universities, and should be recognized as significant support of higher education and research.
Taken in total, the above spending priorities indicate that government does appear to be getting the message about the importance of investing in research and innovation. However some items are notable by their absence. There did not appear to be any direct action in support of large scientific facilities (such as the Canadian Light Source and SNOLAB) in a predictable, ongoing manner. Operation (and overhead costs) of all large laboratories funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation was given little attention. There was also no mention of support for a research nuclear reactor, something that Canada’s nuclear scientists say is a pressing need given the situation at Chalk River. For more than 50 years Canada has had a stellar reputation for developing nuclear reactor technology. We may be on the verge of losing this ability entirely. While the government did allocate $48M for research, development, and application of medical isotopes, there is nothing evident in either the speech from the throne or the Budget that indicates what the long-term strategy is for Canada’s nuclear program. However the government has plans for a full review of the entire federal research and development program where hopefully these and other issues will be addressed. Ensuring participation by academic scientists in this review will be essential in this regard.

For the most part this Budget contains a fair helping of good news for Canadian science. It would have been easy for the government to freeze or cut this kind of funding in these globally recessionary times. Instead, the strong efforts of Canada’s science community to persuade the government of the importance of funding science — pure and applied — appear to have paid off, at least in modest terms. The challenge for the future will be to continue to articulate the relevance of basic research and innovation in a way that ensures government continues to get the message.