Canada is falling behind on R&D as a nation (part one)

Anecdotally, a  while ago, I had the opportunity to meet someone who had recently come back from China. He mentioned to me that everything in China at the university where he visited was relatively recent. The facilities were new, the equipment was new, and they were expanding at a very impressive pace.

He noted that here in Canada, many of our facilities were aging. It is not so much that Canadians did not want new scientific facilities as much as it was a lack of funding and spending, both public along with private sector, in R&D spending.

Canadian R&D is lagging behind peers

Compared to the rest of the OECD, and indeed much of the rest of the world, Canadian R&D spending has been lagging dramatically over the past couple of decades.  Independent reviews have given Canada failing grades for its lack of spending and lack of innovation.

While Canada lags behind and worse, is decreasing R&D spending, the rest of the OECD seems to be increasing spending. Source:

The issue here is that neither the public nor private sector are picking up the slack in R&D spending. In fact, spending has fallen in both sectors.

R&D is falling both sectors

R&D spending has fallen in both public and private sector spending. Source:

We desperately need to have these trends reversed in both public and private sector spending. It does not help that our previous Prime Minster, Stephen Harper, went to the extreme of censoring scientists and cutting funding where the scientific conclusions did not meet their ideological views.

The Harper administration also employed a more direct tactic: Funding cuts.

One high-profile case involved the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, which had its funding source pulled in 2012 (some funding was later restored). Another was the attempted shutdown in 2012 of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), one of the most important facilities in the world for tracking the long-term effects of climate change, pollutants and other factors on freshwater ecosystems and fish.

When the government announced they would no longer fund the ELA, there was a public outcry, says the ELA’s current executive director, Matthew McCandless. Environmental activists protested the cuts, while scientists and politicians criticized the government. “It was thought there was a war on science and this was the battle royale,” says McCandless. “Canadians really rallied behind this cause, and then the Harper government relented and said they would transfer it to a private operator.”

In the end, a budget bill called Bill C-38 cut $2 million from the ELA’s federal funding, but the facility was not shut down. The provincial government in Ontario picked up some of the funding from the government, while the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit independent research organization, ran the project.

“We would have lost so much,” says McCandless, who took on his position after the ELA transferred to private ownership. “These lakes have told us untold things about how the climate has changed since the ’60s. For example, there are two weeks a year less ice cover in these lakes. They’re getting warmer, they are getting darker. Fish in these lakes are getting smaller.”

Now to be fair, our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has unveiled modest increases for Canada’s R&D budget, but the problem is that they are nowhere near the amount necessary to make Canada a true leader in the world in scientific research.

This whole effort has forced scientists to play a bigger role in lobbying for more funding themselves.

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.”

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.”

That is a very disturbing situation. While Trudeau has made a few very small steps in the right direction, there is clearly a lot more to do.

How much would we have to spend to catch up?

Some of the leaders in the world spend close to 5% of their entire GDP on R&D. For Canada, that would mean more than tripling our current percentage of GDP on R&D spending.

For us to get to say, 5% of GDP, we would need to increase our R&D spending by as much as 3.5% of our GDP. Given that our GDP is estimated to be $1.74 billion USD in 2019, at current exchange rates, that would work out to $2.34 trillion CAD, we would nee to increase our R&D spending by about $82 billion dollars Canadian. Think about that for a moment, $82 billion dollars of increase in R&D spending to catch up. If you think about that, we are talking about 2 orders of magnitude more spending per year than Trudeau’s relatively small increases were.

The amount of spending we would need boggles the mind almost, but I think it is absolutely necessary if we are going to remain a truly innovative economy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it may end up being an understatement of what we truly need to spend because we should be spending more just to catch up.

One of the biggest challenges then would be to mobilize the political will to get this type of spending or at the very least dramatic increases in spending.

In part 2 and future parts of this series, I’d like to explore why I think this is necessary.


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