Canada plans big rise in R&D and education funding

18 Apr 2024 | News

Universities, companies cheer new budget plans for AI, scholarships, and research infrastructure – but ultimate cost of joining Horizon Europe not yet clear

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Photo credits: jiawangkun / BigStock

After years of complaints about under-funding, the Canadian government announced plans for a big rise in spending on research and education – including new investments in artificial intelligence, research infrastructure and student grants.

The plans, announced 16 April as part of the just-begun Canadian budget year, include C$2 billion (€1.36 billion) over the next five years to build home-grown computing facilities for AI development, rather than having to continue relying on US or other foreign computing infrastructure. Ottawa also plans to scale up a pilot AI system so its transport ministry can screen 100% of air cargo entering the country against potential terrorist threats. And it announced a rise in per-student awards for masters, doctoral and post-doctoral scholars.  

It didn’t, however, specify how much it will pay for Canadian researchers to join the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme this year – though officials in Ottawa told university administrators that they are confident there will be enough money to fund Canadian participation through 2027 as planned.

Not surprisingly, university officials hailed the new budget – with Chad Gaffield, CEO of the U15 group of top Canadian universities, estimating that by the end of the new five-year plan overall spending on research grants could rise by about 30% from the level today, and all types of fellowship funding could rise by a third.

“To me, that’s pretty significant,” Gaffield said. For the government, “the key was to send the message across Canada and internationally that we are really determined to be competitive, to prevent brain drain and to develop the highly qualified talent we need.”

The fine print

A big caveat in this, of course, is public opinion polling suggesting that prime minister Justin Trudeau’s government may not survive the coming 2025 elections – and so any talk of a five-year plan is wishful thinking. But even so, for the immediate budget year there are still some big funding increases planned – so at the least Canadian universities and companies can count on more research and education money for now.

In Canada as in most countries, budget is a political flash-point because of high inflation, steep housing costs and mounting geopolitical tensions. In this context, research and education funding normally doesn’t get a lot of attention. And since Trudeau came to power in late 2015, Canadian spending on R&D has barely budged from 1.7% of gross domestic product – ranking it second worst, after Italy, among the G7 group of leading western economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s global science and technology databases.

But Canadian universities and tech companies have been lobbying fiercely for a rise, and they regard the new budget plans as a good start. In its documents, Ottawa presented a five-year plan for C$2 billion on a new AI Compute access fund and a national AI Sovereign compute strategy to provide computing infrastructure for AI researchers and companies. A further C$200 million is planned for AI R&D, through Canada’s regional development agencies, to get AI into agriculture, clean tech, health care and manufacturing.

The C$6.7 million air cargo screening system will be a high-profile initiative, but goes with creation of an AI Safety Institute “to ensure the safe development and deployment of AI” through the economy. The government also plans to continue funding the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat quixotic policy initiative that Trudeau began in 2019 with French president Emmanuel Macron with high hopes of developing a global consensus on AI policy. That has yet to materialise.

All the AI initiatives reflect the fact that it’s a field in which several Canadian researchers have become prominent – though many have been working for US tech companies. Still, according to the government, Canada has published more AI papers per capita than any other G7 country, and now has more than 140,000 working in the growing Canadian AI industry.

Beyond AI

The government also announced five-year plans for C$3.5 billion in new research infrastructure and research funding, plus C$600 million in new tax incentives for companies to invest in R&D. It plans a new “capstone” research organisation to coordinate funding among Canada’s existing research councils. And for masters, doctoral and post-doctoral scholars it plans C$825 million in new five-year funding, on top of C$199.8 million a year in ongoing awards programmes. That means masters’ scholarships will rise to C$27,000 from C$17,500, and post-doc awards to C$70,000 from as little as C$40,000 today.

As for the Horizon Europe money, Canada late last year agreed to associate to the €95.5 billion EU programme – meaning Canadian researchers can apply with European colleagues for collaborative project grants, though they won’t be able to tap the cash until Canada formally signs the contract in a few months.

The price, however, is that Canada must pay into the central EU programme fund – and the amount would depend on how successful Canadians actually prove to be in winning the grants.

“We didn’t get the (cost) number in the budget,” Gaffield said, due to what Canadian officials described as a budget “technicality.” A precise number would have given some hint of how much collaboration both sides expect in the first few years.

Still, he said, officials told universities “not to worry” about it because “they feel super confident” the federal government will have enough money to cover its Horizon obligations through 2027.

A spokesperson for the European Commission stressed that Canada and the EU have already reached an agreement on Ottawa’s contribution to the programme.

“In fact, the negotiations were concluded in November 2023,” they said. “The exact contribution figures will be published when the agreement is signed. The internal procedures are ongoing, and the aim is for the signature to take place mid-2024.”

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