Greater support for industry and venture capital comes at a cost to environmental research

Canada’s researchers and environmentalists are digesting the impacts of finance minister Jim Flaherty’s 2012 budget. Academic and industry researchers saw funding levels for basic research maintained, alongside investments in biotech and closer links with industry. Meanwhile, the budget has imposed deep cuts on environmental research and changes to the environmental review process.

Canada’s new budget will see savings of C$5.2 billion (£3.3 billion) made over three years. The government claims that over 70% of these savings will come from operational efficiencies. Budget headlines include C$1 billion for science and technology, up to C$500 million to spur the growth of innovative start-up companies and moving to a ‘one project, one review’ process for environmental assessment projects. Currently, with things still up in the air, it is difficult to tell if C$1 billion for science will be a win, as it depends on where the money comes from. Venture capitalists, however, describe the investment support as ‘significantly greater’ than that seen in recent years.

One thing was clear though, the country’s environmental regulator, Environment Canada, was the big loser. It saw its funding slashed by 6%. Many are also mourning the immediate loss of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), a ground breaking group of leading academics, economists, ecologists and policy-makers that advised the government. Biologist Jeffery Young and energy policy analyst Tyler Bryant at the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver said that NRTEE’s current Climate Prosperity initiative is among the most ambitious works in the world, demonstrating that deep reductions in carbon emissions are possible without significant economic sacrifices.   

Flaherty says the ‘one project, one review’ principle will encourage economic growth. But critics are wary of moves to ‘streamline’ the environmental review process. Controversial projects like the Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which would currently take up to six years to be approved, could now be pushed through in two years. Further tiers of legislation exist at the provincial government level, although these are inconsistent.

However, some working in academia were frustrated at the way that C$37 million in funding was redirected towards industry-academic partnerships. ‘By linking research only to business interests, the government will stifle rather than promote growth and scientific advancement,’ said the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) president Jim Turk.

Research boon

The budget sends positive signals to Canada’s research universities. ‘These announcements underscore the federal government’s commitment to research and innovation,’ said University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope. ‘These commitments will ensure that Canada will continue to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.’

Funding to the federal granting councils, which sponsor basic and applied research in the sciences, social sciences and humanities will be maintained. There are also plans for a significant renewal of multi-year funding (CAN$500 million) for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which supports critical research infrastructure.

Canada’s biotech industry was pleased to see $400 million earmarked to support the creation of new large scale venture capital (VC) funds, $100 million for the Business Development Bank of Canada for VC activities, and the Industrial Research Assistance Program doubled to $110 million annually. ‘Canadian biotech companies continue to grow a competitive new economy built on entrenched longevity of success and the increased benefits of investing in homegrown innovations,’ said Peter Brenders, president and chief executive of the biotechnology organisation BIOTECanada.

‘In this budget, our government is looking ahead not only over the next few years but also over the next generation,’ said Flaherty. ‘The reforms we present today are substantial, responsible and necessary. They will ensure that all across government we are focused on enabling and sustaining Canada’s long-term economic growth.’