Peter Stoicheff has served as president of the University of Saskatchewan (USask) since 2015. (Photo: Submitted)
Peter Stoicheff has served as president of the University of Saskatchewan (USask) since 2015. (Photo: Submitted)

Opinion: Decline in research funding in Canada threatens prosperity

University of Saskatchewan (USask) president Peter Stoicheff says a decrease in funding for research in Canada will have a broader economic impact.

By Guest column via The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Last week in Saskatoon, the University of Saskatchewan hosted the presidents of U15 Canada’s major research-intensive universities.

Top of mind for them is the continued decline in federal funding for university-based research to help build a better future in an increasingly challenging and competitive world. Well-funded research activities develop the highly qualified talent Canada needs to tackle pressing economic and social challenges.

Competitive scholarships and research assistantships for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, along with well-supplied research facilities, are essential to attract and retain emerging leaders that the rest of the world also wants. 

Most worrisome for Canada are the ambitious new investments in science and research recently announced elsewhere that make us unattractive by comparison.

While Canada’s support for research is declining, the United States has committed $200 billion over the next 10 years for science funding. Japan recently announced their new $87-billion science fund.

These examples make clear that if Canada does not demonstrate similar ambition, our place in the rapidly evolving global knowledge economy will be at risk.

At the recent meeting, U15 university presidents expressed profound concern about losing top researchers in areas such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and cutting-edge medicine, and the increasing difficulties in attracting top graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and professors in many fields.

Indeed, a brain drain is already underway, making Canada less able to compete in high-growth sectors and attract the highly qualified talent needed to tackle the defining issues of our time — from climate change to sustainable agriculture.

At the U of S, our world-class researchers have pioneered discoveries that are having a national and global impact. For example, research into the health of soils and pioneering work on plant-based proteins are enhancing Saskatchewan’s agri-food sector and helping address food security concerns worldwide.

Similarly, our researchers are advancing world-leading vaccine development and exploring plant-based fuel alternatives.

These examples illustrate the crucial importance of fundamental and applied research whose innovative ideas and new technologies can have a transformative impact, both domestically and internationally. This is happening at all Canadian research universities, but uncompetitive funding could soon put it all at risk.

A healthy university research ecosystem also provides significant direct economic benefits to cities and provinces. Highly qualified graduates become our provinces’ economic and social leaders, including those who launch start-ups forged from innovative ideas developed in research universities.

The U of S, for example, contributes $1.3 billion in GDP to the provincial economy. Our graduates have created successful start-ups that include SkipTheDishes, SED Systems, International Road Dynamics Inc., Picatic, Vendasta and others.

Five of Canada’s fastest-growing companies are in Saskatoon, each with a direct connection to the U of S. Successful companies such as Draganfly acknowledge the importance of proximity to our university for research and workforce talent.

In the U15’s recent discussions, presidents emphasized their universities’ equally critical roles in the prosperity of cities and provinces across Canada.

Evidence is mounting that the successful research ecosystem that Canada created 25 years ago is now at risk. This conclusion was a central finding of the federal government’s advisory panel that reported in March on the state of Canada’s research support system.

In addition to recommending improvements in governance and organization, the panel called for significant reinvestment in research funding through the federal granting councils to remain globally competitive.

Without significant new investment in research, Canada will become increasingly dependent on other countries in its efforts to become sustainable, innovative and prosperous. 

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Peter Stoicheff is the president of the University of Saskatchewan and chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.

Together, we will undertake the research the world needs. We invite you to join by supporting critical research at USask.