CAN-ACN response to budget 2022 – “A Plan to Grow our Economy and Make Life More Affordable”

The Canadian Association for Neuroscience recognizes key investments that were made to support targeted research areas in budget 2022 but calls on the government to provide broader support to the Canadian scientific community through increased funding for fundamental research. We are specifically disappointed with the lack of increased support for non-targeted, hypothesis-driven & investigator-led research funded through Tri-Agency – Canadian Institutes of Health Research – CIHR, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council – NSERC, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council -SSHRC).

Key investments announced in targeted areas of research and to support a more diverse research community

Of interest to brain researchers in Canada, in the Budget 2022, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced key investments to support Dementia research ($20M over 5 years targeted funds through CIHR and $30M for the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation at Baycrest). The burden of neurological disorders has substantially increased over the last 25 years with ageing of the population and has had a growing impact on Canadians and on the economy. We know that neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death worldwide. These investments are therefore welcome and timely.

The Canadian Association for Neuroscience wholeheartedly applauds the new funding proposed to support Black Canadian researchers ($40.9 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, and $9.7 million ongoing to the federal granting councils to support targeted scholarships and fellowships for promising Black student researchers). A diverse and inclusive workforce will lead to better research and science.

New funding has also been announced to support the Canada Research Chairs program ($38.3 million over four years, starting in 2023-24, and $12.7 million ongoing for the federal granting councils to add new, internationally recruited Canada Excellence Research Chairs). This investment will help Canada attract and retain world-class researchers.

The need for broader support for the diverse and innovative Canadian research community

While we applaud the targeted investments announced in budget 2022, we must also express our disappointment at the lack of re-investment in fundamental research funded through CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. These three entities are the core funding mechanism for basic science in Canada, and we are very disheartened that no new funding for non-targeted research supported by these agencies have been announced in budget 2022.  In effect, when inflation adjusted, purchasing power continues to decline and is compounded by supply chain pressures that significantly increased costs during the pandemic.

Canadian scientists work for all Canadians. Their discoveries fuel the innovation economy, their laboratories train highly qualified personnel who contribute to diversifying the Canadian workforce, and their discoveries also provide hope to Canadians who live with diseases for which there are currently no cures, and few treatments. Canadian neuroscientists strive to find cures and treatments for a wide range of brain diseases and conditions. Fundamental research to understand how the brain and nervous system work offers our best chance to reduce the burden of neurological disorders and to improve the quality of life of Canadians. COVID-19 has shown us that a health crisis can have wide ranging effects on our health, economy, and mental well-being. Investing in fundamental research will allow Canada to address existing challenges, but it is furthermore an investment in scientific readiness, to be prepared to face the next health challenge.

If you ask the research community how we can address the challenges of the future, they will answer that basic research is the key foundational element to developing novel solutions to emerging problems. Who could have predicted that the foundational research on lipid nanoparticles done by Professor Pieter Cullis over 40 years at the University of British Columbia would be a key to the development of mRNA based COVID-19 vaccines? Not many. Just last week, Dr. Cullis was announced as a Gairdner award winner, often a precursor to the Nobel prize. Examples like this one show why it is important to support basic research in all areas, and to make curiosity-driven, investigator-led research a priority for Canada.

The time to support basic research is now. Canada is home to many innovative researchers whose discoveries fuel the innovation economy. We must work to retain Canadian talent by supporting a healthy science and research ecosystem. The funding level for CIHR has remained stagnant while research costs increase, and the number of researchers rises. At the same time, many countries, including the USA, are re-investing massively in science to stimulate the knowledge economy.

More support is required to maintain our attractiveness for the next generation of researchers. In 2021, master’s and doctoral students with a Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) received exactly the same amount as students did in 2004 – $17,500 for a master’s student and $35,000 for a doctoral student.  These scholarships have not kept up with inflation, and no new investment in this important program has been announced in budget 2022. It is disheartening for these students, who must now face  rising housing costs and inflation rates, and who see their supervisors struggling to receive research funding. Academia is viewed as an uphill battle, with no clear indication that the situation will improve, and this disheartening prospect amplifies concern about the viability of fundamental research, including brain sciences, in Canada.

This hit home for us as the student member of our advocacy group informed us that she recently decided to quit her PhD for many personal reasons and indicated that one of the driving forces was how difficult it was to be living on a $20,000/year stipend in Toronto. She is quite worried about the future of science in Canada as she sees many colleagues dropping out or choosing alternative careers. Paying students a living wage is the base for equity, diversity and inclusion, and absolutely required if we are to attract the brightest minds from diverse backgrounds and not only those who are independently wealthy.

The 2022 budget presentation ends with this sentence: “A plan that invests in people. And a plan that will help build a Canada where nobody gets left behind“.  Researchers and students who depend on funding obtained through CIHR, NSERC and SSHR today feel left behind. We hope we can work with the government to support basic research in the future.