Federal funding cuts to science felt in university research labs

But 'Government of Canada has invested more than $11 billion of new funding' since 2006, Industry Canada says

Changes to scientific funding at the federal level are taking their toll on the work done in some University of Western Ontario research labs.

Christopher Pin — an associate professor in the university’s department of pediatrics, oncology, and physiology and pharmacology — has experienced the repercussions first-hand as grants available through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) shrink.

“When I started in 2000, the funding rate for CIHR was about 27 per cent [of submitted proposals],” Pin said in an email. “Because of cuts to the programs, the latest round of CIHR applications was funded at a rate of just under 16 per cent. The current round will likely be closer to 12 per cent.”

This has led universities like Western to prioritize what research to seek funding for, he said.

In essence, this will limit the types of research a professor can do.

—Christopher Pin

“At Western, we are going through a process of identifying the major strengths we have in research so that we can identify to four-eight research areas to focus on,” Pin said. “In essence, this will limit the types of research a professor can do since most of the resources in obtaining and maintaining funding will go to those focus areas. The decision process becomes very political.”

But according to Industry Canada, the federal government has been encouraging to science through increased investments, and by ensuring efficient communication between the public and government while making more data public.

“Since 2006, the Government of Canada has invested more than $11 billion of new funding to science, technology and innovation,” Industry Canada spokesperson Michel Cimpaye said. “This year’s federal budget, Economic Action Plan 2014, also included the largest increase to the granting councils in a decade.”

Katie Gibbs, executive director at Evidence for Democracy, is frustrated by the federal government’s funding choices, she said. The government is taking an uncompromising position on the way to making Canada an energy superpower and it saw certain research as impediments to reaching that goal, she said.

“The overall cuts and the attitude by this government towards science, and especially areas of environmental science, are not very encouraging to young scientists,” Gibbs said. “Both myself and a lot of my colleagues in graduate schools are really looking to other countries for job opportunities.

“A distinguished biologist was giving career advice to young biologists and his advice was, ‘Go get a job somewhere else and come back when Canada is doing research again’.”

Cimpaye disagreed, saying good work is being done here at home.

“The government is extremely proud of the world-class research our scientists and researchers undertake,” Cimpaye said. “Science can improve the quality of life of Canadians while creating jobs and economic prosperity.”

The federal government is placing more emphasis on translational research — research that brings instant benefit in some area — and on a scientist’s individual record, Pin said.

“They believe that Canadian scientists are not holding their own, which is actually far from the truth,” he said. “However, the criteria used to determine productivity is patents, clinical trials and developing R&D, not high impact papers or transformational discoveries.”