The hubbub of election season sees parties and candidates promoting and revamping policies and agendas, but there’s one policy discussion that has yet to materialize — government funding for fundamental science research.

The platforms of the Conservative Party, Liberal Party, and New Democratic Party (NDP) all have sparse information on science research, though the Green Party has provided a detailed strategy on funding.

Science research funding is lower than it was 10 years ago. The three main agencies that finance most of Canada’s federal research — the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR); and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — have substantially decreased the amount of funding they’re willing to give, with the approval rate of grant applications by these agencies dropping to as low as 13 per cent.

Since winning the last federal election in 2015, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau appointed Dr. Kirsty Duncan as the chief scientific officer. Duncan commissioned an expert panel to carry out the fundamental science review, surveying the current landscape of science research in Canada.

In a 2015 mandate letter to the minister of science, Trudeau committed to the creation of more opportunities for students in STEM and business programs, enhanced research funding across the board, and strengthened recognition of the importance of fundamental research in discovery. According to the federal government, these mandates have been fulfilled.

However, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has contended that federal research funding has not been optimally allocated. The Liberals allotted $900 million to science research from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, but the association maintains that it did not make a substantial impact on the larger science community. It wrote that the amount was only shared between 13 postsecondary institutes and their researchers.

Voters might expect a more coherent plan for research funding developed by each of the main parties. In the absence of a clear commitment to science research funding from the Liberals, the NDP, and the Conservatives, The Varsity reached out to party representatives.

Different parties’ pledges to research funding

According to a spokesperson from the Liberal Party, the party plans on providing $354.7 million over five years, and $90.1 million per year ongoing, to the CIHR. It also plans to invest $265 million in the SSHRC.

A spokesperson for the NDP wrote that they will work with universities and health professionals to make sure that public research on critical health issues continues to flourish, and will invest in public agriculture research.

A representative from the Green Party referred to its in-depth funding strategy, which mentions that it plans on incorporating conclusions of the Fundamental Science Review and increasing funding to postsecondary institutions and universities for science research.

The Conservatives did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

U of T professor highlights reticence on science funding

A major issue for voters is that none of the parties seem to want to talk about science research funding in-depth, according to an op-ed to the Toronto Star written by Dr. David Naylor, a former U of T President, and Dr. Mark Lautens, a professor at U of T’s Department of Chemistry.

Lautens underscored the importance of federal research investment in an interview with The Varsity. He noted that it enables scientists to improve the public’s quality of life by developing disease therapies, finding solutions to environmental issues, and bettering waste reduction. He noted that funding also provides research opportunities to better train the country’s future researchers.

Lautens has supported the rebound of federal funding since cuts in the mid-2000s, but he still believes that “a lot more needs to be done.” He highlighted the low rates of CIHR grant approval for medical research funding as a critical area of improvement.

What’s at stake for students?

Farah Qaiser, a Master’s student in molecular genetics at U of T and a head spokesperson for #VoteScience, a national nonpartisan effort to advocate for science in the upcoming election, explained how voters can learn more about the parties’ positions on supporting research.

In an email to The Varsity, Qaiser advocated for voters to reach out to their candidates as soon as possible to ask where they stand on science issues that matter to their electorate — such as funding research or better supporting the “next generation of scientists.”

She recommended voters to do so by reaching out to candidates in-person, calling, emailing, or using the #VoteScience campaign’s email form.

To learn more, Qaiser further recommended students check CBC’s non-partisan science and environmental policy debate between federal candidates, as well as the conclusions of a survey sent to the federal parties to determine their environmental policies.

The Evidence for Democracy advocacy group, along with members of the #VoteScience campaign, have also published results of a questionnaire sent to the federal parties about their positions on science policy.

The Liberals, NDP, and Greens submitted responses to the survey. According to Evidence for Democracy, the Conservatives “declined to participate due to time constraints.”