Federal budget signals commitment to science

Government of Canada // Special to Western News

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined famed scientist-entertainer Bill Nye, right, in an armchair discussion highlighting Budget 2018’s investments in Canadian innovation at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on March 6.

Western researchers are better positioned to undertake cutting-edge work, thanks to the largest investment ever in fundamental science research, tabled late last month as part of the 2018 federal budget.

“It’s tremendous news for Canada. This was long awaited and we are thankful for the government for having the foresight to inject strategic funds into the research ecosystem,” said John Capone, Vice-President (Research). “The impact on Western will be significant.”

In Equality + Growth: A Strong Middle Class, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, BA’86 (Political. Science), committed $3.8 billion over the next five years to further propel innovation and science at Canadian universities. The investment also includes $1.22 billion in new funding to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), known collectively as the Tri-Council.

“The funding from the tri-council agencies has been fairly restrictive over the last number of years. This opens it up to significantly greater opportunities for us,” Capone continued. “There’s also new funding for infrastructure that will enable us to undertake revitalization of expensive equipment and facilities. And, importantly, there’s a greater thrust towards equity and inclusion.

“There’s support for gender equity through an increase in the number of Canada Research Chairs, which are more aligned with the aspects of achieving equity, diversity and inclusiveness. That’s good news for us. We were well prepared for that in the last number of years at Western, and this really aligns with our own priorities and strategies. Having the funds to undertake and implement those ideas is a great opportunity for us.”

The federal government started to implement measures to improve equity, diversity and inclusion, with the recently established Canada Research Coordinating Committee tasked with strengthening equity and diversity in research. The 2018 budget supports the following initiatives:

  • The collection of better data on underrepresented groups to inform action plans to promote stronger representation of underrepresented groups in granting council programs, with clear targets and annual reporting to measure progress;
  • Research institutions will receive support to advance equality and diversity through the adoption of the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) program. Its goals include structural and cultural changes, such as increased support for women’s careers and efforts to challenge discrimination and bias;
  • Research institutions will be able to compete for grants to tackle challenges in addressing underrepresentation and career advancement faced by women, Indigenous Peoples, members of visible minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQ2 individuals; and
  • Indigenous communities will be engaged to identify strategies to grow their capacity to conduct research, partner with the broader research community and assist in establishing a national research program.

What’s more, in 2018-19, the granting councils will be required to publish an annual report for Canadians on progress in addressing challenges in the research system, including equity and diversity, and support for researchers at various career stages.

Western has already started to implement the Athena SWAN program, Capone noted.

“I am thrilled about Canada’s investment in investigator-led, fundamental research, and its emphasis on equity and diversity, in the 2018 budget,” said Lisa Saksida, Western’s Tier 1 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Translational Cognitive Neuroscience and Scientific Director of BrainsCAN. “This is a major boost in the places where it is most needed – and a big step toward creating an environment that will make Canada a powerhouse of cutting-edge research and innovation.”

As the federal government has highlighted gender equity as a priority, Saksida hopes awareness and causes people to put a bit more thought into gender when making decisions.

“When nominating people for Canada Research Chairs, have you really thought about everyone who would be excellent, or did you just nominate the first (excellent) person who came to mind? When interviewing faculty candidates, have you thought about how implicit bias might make you ask different questions of the woman, or have different assumptions? I was very surprised to find out recently only about 20 per cent of faculty members in the area of cognitive neuroscience at Western are women,” she continued.

“At the undergraduate and the graduate level in cognitive neuroscience, there are equal numbers of men and women. So, like many places, we do need to raise our game. The greater awareness of the issue that we are now seeing is the first step toward that improvement.”

The implementation of Athena SWAN can only help in this regard, Saksida explained. Things like meeting schedules, which one might not consider an equity issue, need to be addressed to foster inclusivity.

“In academic departments, it is common to hold important meetings where decisions are being made around 3:30 p.m. – the rationale being that it doesn’t break up peoples’ days. An unintended consequence of this is people who have responsibilities outside of work (e.g., young children) often have to miss these meetings due to school pickup times,” she said.

“This disproportionately affects early to mid-career women, who end up not having a voice at such meetings. Largely because of Athena SWAN, the notion of core hours is something now fairly standard in the U.K. – the idea all meetings where decisions are made should be held during core daytime hours so as not to disadvantage any groups of individuals who have other responsibilities outside work. And this relatively minor change has made a big impact on inclusivity.”

The federal budget also includes $275 million for a new fund aimed at research that is international, multidisciplinary and fast-breaking – three hallmarks of Western’s own strategic plan – and $21 million towards increasing diversity in science.

“This is something we have done here and have probably have done better than most Canadian universities – the cluster program is an example of that. It’s almost a template for the government’s funding approach to this,” Capone added. “We were doing it on a shoe string, but now that there is some competitive funding available, we can scale it up.

“We are in a great position mostly because we had the foresight and the resolve to invest in these different directions at a time when there was so much demand on resources. For a number of years now we’ve agelessly pursued partnerships across faculties and across departments with hiring partnerships, not only in research. I’m pleased there’s avenues for enhancing that now through funding mechanisms.”

The government’s continued support for scientific research infrastructure with an expected $763 million coming to the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the $210 million earmarked for the CRC program, which will create significant funding and renewal for the country’s top academic scientists, is also a boost for Western researchers, Capone said.