'We should be concerned': some voters say science funding should be top election issue

·4 min read
Simarpreet Singh is a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba. He specializes in physical organic chemistry.  (Submitted by Simarpreet Singh - image credit)
Simarpreet Singh is a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba. He specializes in physical organic chemistry. (Submitted by Simarpreet Singh - image credit)

A physical organic chemist from Winnipeg is calling on federal election candidates to make science funding a priority.

Simarpreet Singh, doctor of philosophy candidate at the University of Manitoba, said funding for research and development in Canada has declined over the last 20 years.

According to Statistics Canada, the country spent the most of its gross domestic product on research and development in 2001 — which was 2%. That number hasn't increased since.

"We should be concerned about that," said Singh, who says issues like climate change, transportation and the pandemic all require solutions from science.

"If there is no funding for that, then how are we going to fight those," said Singh. "We won't be prepared to fight any of the big problems."

National coalition asking about science

Singh questions why since the election was called, there hasn't been any specific announcement about science funding.

His concerns echo "Vote Science," a non-partisan national campaign led by a coalition of science organizations calling on the public to ask their local candidates about the issue.

Rachael Maxwell, executive director of Evidence for Democracy — one of the organizations leading the campaign — says Canada is "falling behind" when it comes to investment in science.

Submitted by Rachael Maxwell
Submitted by Rachael Maxwell

"This is really unfortunate because science actually underlies practically every area of the economy, from climate change to land management, to agricultural practices and health care," Maxwell said.

In 2018, Canada ranked 18th among 34 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

From 2016 to 2019, the average spending on research and development among countries was 2.5% of GDP, while Canada's spending was 1.5%.

Singh and Maxwell say they want to see the next federal government increase that number to three per cent or more like Germany.

Paul Zinken/dpa via The Associated Press
Paul Zinken/dpa via The Associated Press

Maxwell said Canada needs to decide whether it wants to be a consumer or producer of innovations that contribute to big challenges like climate change.

She points to the COVID-19 pandemic, where Canada wasn't a producer of vaccines and didn't have the domestic capacity to do it. Currently the country is leading in genomic science, forestry, aquaculture and natural resource management. Maxwell believes Canada can do more.

Stance of the major parties

CBC contacted the four major parties represented in the House of Commons with a presence in Manitoba and asked whether they plan to increase funding for research and development beyond 1.5% of Canada's GDP.

In 2018, Canada's spending on research and development totalled $37.5 billion.

Douglas Hemmerling, Green Party candidate for Winnipeg South Centre, says his party's platform supports increasing science funding to 2.5% of GDP.

Green Party of Canada
Green Party of Canada

Hemmerling said if elected, the Green Party will also implement funding recommendations from Canada's Fundamental Science Review and restore a funding stream for climate and atmospheric science. He also supports a national all-partisan science strategy.

"That's the only way to get around climate change issues, right? We have to be non-partisan and we have to collaborate," he said. "It's all hands on deck.... We're sort of running out of time."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In an email statement, the Liberals said if they are re-elected, they will add 1,000 Canada Research Chairs to help attract and retain talent at Canadian universities and support graduate research, with a focus on improving gender and racial equity among Canadian faculty, along with other priorities.

Its platform promises $75 million annually for colleges and universities to help commercialize leading research. It's also pledging $100 million to "pursue moonshot research" into high-impact illnesses and $2 million for a Canada Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"We are committed to making the investments necessary to make Canada a leader in the international science community and an attractive place for global talent and research," a spokesperson for the Liberals said.

The Conservatives didn't respond to CBC's request for comment, but its platform pledges to invest $5 billion over the next five years aimed at making advances in hydrogen use, small molecular reactors, private sector innovation in the space sector, electric vehicle development and pharmaceutical research.

In an email, the NDP says it plans to maintain current funding levels for science and research, although that hasn't been specified in its platform.

This story is the result of a CBC Manitoba engagement journalism project. We listened to BIPOC voters in Manitoba about their views on the 2021 federal election and then pursued stories that mattered the most.

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