“In 2005 about 31% of CIHR applicants were awarded grants, yet by 2018 less than 15 of applicants received funding.”

Regardless of what Copernicus says, our world revolves around money; so, it’s not surprising that money is the biggest roadblock of modern-day scientific discoveries. The majority of funding for research in Canada comes directly from the federal government. The Government of Canada distributes the allotted research budget to the Big Three funding agencies: CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), and (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) SSHRC, known together as the Tri-Council Agencies. The Tri-Councils, much like the Olympians, reign over the land, sky, and sea of research funding. It is their role to determine which of the many applicants get the glory of a much-coveted grant to fund their research projects. And while the cost of absolutely everything has increased in the past 20 years, the available funding through the Tri-Council has remained stagnant.

While the federal budget for research has not increased, the success rate for applicants of the tri-council grants has steadily declined. In 2005 about 31% of CIHR applicants were awarded grants, yet by 2018 less than 15% of applicants received funding. The inflation-adjusted average funding through in the past 20 years has remained more or less the same despite a 3.5x increase in applicants. In an attempt to counteract this, the federal government created more available awards, not by increasing the budget for research, but by decreasing the award value by 25%. The average award has decreased from $950,000 to $725,000 between 2018 and 2020. This means that the painstaking effort that goes into writing a grant application is more often than not unrewarded and many important research projects go unfunded. And while sharing the wealth does benefit the few extra awardees, a band-aid solution is not sufficient to maintain the increasing financial demands of the research industry.

The types of research that does get funded by the Tri-Council has also changed to favour studies that align with the goals of the Canadian government. This resulted in a general decrease in funding for basic science research and better odds for translational and applied research projects such as pandemic reduction strategies. In addition to this shift, the process of accepting grants has also changed – in addition to peer reviewers who rank the applications, a second round of review is what makes the final funding decisions. This committee, primarily made of civil servants, often doesn’t have the background to understand the nuances of the proposed research. As immunologists, this may have a smaller impact on our funding success than seen in other fields, as many if not all projects in our field can be described through a public health lens, but it certainly impedes learning for knowledge’s sake. Basic science provides the foundation for all other research, without it we’d see little advancement in the fields of medicine or technology.

How does Canada expect to hold any ground in global science and innovation without providing the financial contributions needed to do the actual work? It’s worth arguing that scientific progress is only successful when the people involved have the tools they need to succeed, and when you can afford to hire those people in the first place.

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Erika McCartney

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