Basic research key to future progress

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press February 27, 2024

DECADES before most of us had ever heard the phrase “novel coronavirus,” researchers at universities around the world were advancing our understanding of vaccines. Their basic research laid the foundation to develop the vaccines that changed the course of the pandemic, in record time.

Basic research — the type of work in science, social sciences and the humanities that has no obvious application nor agenda — is the core of scholarly production. It’s central to the value that universities bring to contemporary societies.

For governments, non-profits and corporations, driven by election cycles, donation drives and quarterly reports, basic research is a challenge. It’s difficult to convince organizations with short-term horizons to invest in research that might not produce tangible results for decades. It’s even more challenging to convince them to support research that, because it examines basic questions or concepts, may not succeed at all.

The long term and the possibility of failure, however, are crucial to basic research. Finding new areas of study, challenging preconceived notions, pushing back against norms; this type of work frequently fails, though even in failure progress is made. At universities, these risks can be taken, and thus the deepest past and farthest future are valued.

With the ongoing need for basic research, it’s disappointing and dangerous that Canada has fallen so far behind its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The average OECD investment in basic research as a percentage of GDP is 2.718 per cent (all numbers as of 2022). Canada invests

only 1.697 per cent, less than half the United States at 3.457 per cent.

This deficit may lead not only to fewer scholarly achievements in Canada, but also affects Canada’s ability to recruit foreign talent and to retain our own talented scholars and students. Canadian graduate students — across fields as diverse as English literature, physics, Indigenous studies and exercise physiology — compete for graduate student grants through the Tri-Council agencies (the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

Universities leverage these grants to compete for graduate students not only in Canada but around the world. Shockingly, given the importance of these grants to recruiting the next generation of Canadian researchers, their value hasn’t changed in decades.

A graduate student in 2003, when the program was introduced, received the same amount of money as a graduate student in 2023. When you adjust for inflation, this means a 34 per cent drop in financial support over the last 20 years.

With stagnant funding, Canadian universities struggle to compete for the best students with their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere.

The consequences of this deficit are already here, but will become clearer in the next decades as Canadian universities produce fewer well-trained students prepared to take on the basic research needed for the myriad technological, social, economic and scientific challenges of the 21st century.

So what can be done? The federal government already has a report recommending an annual

10 per cent increase in Tri-Council grant budgets for the next five years to address this acute issue.

Moreover, $200 million — a tiny fraction of the federal budget — over two years would increase the number and value of graduate scholarships. With small but immediate actions, Canada could stop the decline and begin the process of turning around the decades-long neglect of basic research and scholarship support in this country.

Across Canada, and in a rare conjunction, student associations, faculty unions and university administrations agree on these issues. Universities hold a unique trust in our society: not only to prepare students for the social, economic, and scientific challenges of the future, but also to reflect on the deep past and the far future. By struggling, querying, questioning, and yes, sometimes failing, professors and students work towards the next scientific, social and cultural breakthroughs.

Without strong support or understanding of the core importance of basic research to our society, Canada risks its competitiveness in global markets. We risk failing to leverage the incredible talent, intelligence and ambition that Canada has in droves. Our federal government must recognize this challenge and take immediate steps to make Canada a basic research powerhouse in the decades to come.

Peter J. Miller is the president of the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association and a CCPA-MB Steering Commitee member.