Could Canada be about to join the EU R&D community?

SOURCE: Frederick Flornin/AFP
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a speech at a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on February 16, 2017,

By U2B Staff 

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The Canadian government is pushing to expand international collaboration in science – including the possibility of joining the European Union’s (EU) big research and development (R&D) programmes.

Despite assigning a disappointing amount of funding to science in their latest budget, the Canadian government is now saying they plan to launch a new fund of up to C$25 million (US$19 million) a year for direct co-funding of science with other governments, in particular, the UK and EU. There have been suggestions from Brussels that the country joins the union’s Horizon Europe programme – a cross-continent R&D fund worth almost EUR100 billion (US$113 billion).

In an interview with Science Business, chief science advisor to prime minister Justin Trudeau, Mona Nemer, said that while there has been no official offer yet from Brussels, Canada would “like to move forward” with the collaboration.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (R) and EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini conduct a joint press conference during the Joint Ministerial Committee Meeting between Canada and the European Union in Montreal, November 6, 2018. Source: AFP

“There are many people who are very keen, both on the scientist side and the science policy side,” she said.

The Trudeau administration has made research and development a central pillar to their vision for the future of Canada, boosting funding and creating new tech and innovation hubs across the country. Toronto in particular has gained a reputation as the new big tech hub – the Silicon Valley of Canada, becoming one of the fastest growing digital technology hubs in North America, overtaking San Francisco when it comes to the creation of tech jobs.

But as the country battles with a deficit of almost US$20 billion, the latest budget released in March, had the science community worried.

As far as funding fundamental research through the granting councils, there’s nothing like the increase announced last year — C$1.7 billion over five years. Because of the funding they received last year for basic science, the research-grant agencies are given no new money in this budget. Science research gets instead a modest sum — C$459 million over five years, directed to “third-party entities” or private-sector organisations.


Looking overseas could be a way to counter this problem and also spur greater innovation in a more diverse research pool, according to Chair of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee, Ted Hewitt.

In Canada, “there’s a strong feeling that we punch above our weight” in science, Hewitt told Science Business.

“But we also realise that we’re not a huge country, and tackling big complicated problems also benefits from international collaboration. This government believes we need to promote that kind of international collaboration to put Canadian expertise to work for the world, and for Canada,” he said.

The reaching out isn’t just about furthering science, it’s also a political move. Greater collaboration on research improves ties between the two regions and is a natural progression, building on the Canada-EU trade agreement. It also provides a nice counterbalance to the somewhat turbulent politics and relations with US President Donald Trump.

Canada and the EU already work closely on R&D, with Canadians participating in 66 Horizon 2020 – the EU’s old R&D fund – research projects.

EU Council Presidents Donald Tusk (R) and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau (L) give a press conference during the EU-Canada Summit on Agreement (CETA) at the EU Headquarters in Brussels, on October 30, 2016. Source: AFP

The next logical step is full membership of Horizon Europe. According to Science Business, Canada is among eight countries with which the European Commission has said it would like to discuss associate membership in the proposed seven-year R&D programme.

Others include China, Israel, Japan, Norway, South Africa, the US, and Switzerland.

Becoming an official member of Horizon Europe would require a formal agreement for the country in question to put forward funds into the pot to support research. But as Canada already funds a lot of European research projects in conjunction with Canadian scientists, Hewitt has suggested the pair skip the formality and just agree to fund each others’ collaborative projects.

The EU is yet to respond with a path forward and has not yet given a formal offer for Canada to join the programme, but as Nomer says, Canada is willing in principle.

“Definitely there’s a lot of interest and support on the Canadian side for long-term collaboration with the European Commission for Horizon Europe,” Nomer said. When asked what kind of membership terms she would like to see, she said, “The more flexible we can be, the better.”