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Good bets in research and data today, a national science strategy tomorrow?

It’s been just over a week since the federal budget was tabled amid a grueling third wave of COVID-19 infections and lockdowns. If you’re looking for an anchor in the storm, Budget 2021 is a safe bet. It is a dense document by any measure – over 700 pages in English, more in French – and if you manage to make it to the end, you’re greeted by annexes chock-full of impact analysis. (Annex 5 alone is 169 pages and “considers how each Budget 2021 measure affects Canadians – both who is most affected and the nature of the impacts at a high level.”)
Good bets in research and data today, a national science strategy for tomorrow

Maybe I just haven’t read enough federal budgets, but the volume of information in this budget feels notable. And it reminds me of something that has been top of mind throughout the pandemic – the shift in our appetite for evidence. More than ever, we’re looking for the data behind the decisions that impact our lives. Data matters for many reasons. It draws out our blind spots, helps us better understand ourselves and improves our chances of making better, more equitable, decisions.

So let’s focus on data for a second. The centrepiece of this budget is a national child care plan that comes with a $30B price tag. Quebec has been running such a program since the late 1990s and has become the global reference pillar for universal child care. The economic and social returns of this investment are well documented (and debated), including the highest rate of women in the workforce anywhere in the world. When Minister Freeland unveiled this commitment, she pointed to over two decades of data and analysis from Quebec to illustrate the chain of reasoning behind this investment.

Perhaps then, it isn’t surprising that better data for decision-making seems to have its own thread in Budget 2021. Commitments to data range from increased investments in Statistics Canada, to a First Nations Data Governance Strategy, to a federal Data Commissioner. A $6.1M investment at Statistics Canada is earmarked to “bring together key economic, social and environmental datasets to develop a user interface to better support decision-making and budgeting.”

While I don’t want to overstate these signals, there is a through line to investigate here. It is the relationship between investments in fundamental research and our capacity to extract value from the growing body of enormous data assets being produced in scientific fields. An investment in basic research is then, amongst many things, an investment in our ability to generate, integrate and apply big data. As we look for ways to refresh our advocacy around increased funding for investigator-led research, the data angle is one we will likely keep close here at E4D.

Data aside, where do we land on Budget 2021? Science of the capital ‘S’ variety might not feel apparent in this budget, not like in 2018. But, if you look at it just so, science is everywhere. The range of targeted investments in artificial intelligence, genomics and quantum technology, along with increased commitments to R&D partnerships, biomanufacturing, research infrastructure and data are important gains. What’s missing from Budget 2021 isn’t science – it’s a National Science Strategy. Without a strategy, none of us can lock eyes on a clear picture of why investments go where they go, where the gaps are, and where Canada’s research landscape is heading and to what end.

Today, former Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan will table a motion to implement a standing committee on science and research in Ottawa. We welcome this motion as recognition that science and research require long-term visioning and coordination. And maybe, just maybe, it opens a new channel for us to demonstrate that science is a national asset worthy of a dedicated strategy. Because in the end, the gift of evidence – our chance at better, more equitable, decisions – will only be fully realized if the whole system is turned on.

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