OTTAWA--The first federal budget from a prime minister described by aides as a "science geek" gives Canadian scientists less than they need--but more than they had expected. Last week's announcement by Paul Martin of a 6.3% boost for each of Canada's three granting councils won't relieve the pent-up demand from programs that are pumping up the country's scientific infrastructure. But the increases are nonetheless being applauded because of an unrelated scandal involving Martin's Liberal Party that is forcing him to pull back on the fiscal reins.

"If I wasn't disappointed, I wouldn't have been asking for enough," said Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, whose budget will rise to $497 million for the fiscal year that began this week. The president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Thomas Brzustowski, calls the boost "a statement of faith in the granting councils."

Martin's budget boosts overall spending by 3.8%, to $143 billion. That modest rise was meant to be a sign of fiscal prudence after his party acknowledged funneling $100 million into companies run by political allies under a program intended to defend Canadian nationalism against the Quebec separatist movement. The resulting scandal has limited Martin's ability to take bold budgetary steps, including any demonstration of his professed love for innovation.

Even so, his new budget adds $15 million to a $171-million-a-year program to pay for the cost to universities of supporting federally funded research ( Science, 27 October 2000, p. 687). It also gives $45 million to the final year of the Genome Canada project, while supporters marshal arguments for a 5-year, $570 million allocation ( Science, 10 March 2000, p. 1732).

But the only sign of a much-ballyhooed push for greater commercialization of university research is a promise to invest $38 million over 5 years in a program to train academic technology-transfer officers and create business-development offices. A private sector panel will draw up the ground rules.

The granting councils hope their modest increases will alleviate pressure from skyrocketing demand for grant funding. Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council president Marc Renaud hopes to maintain a 40% success rate for standard research grants in the face of more than 1000 new applicants. "We're just overwhelmed," he says.

The strength of that demand is reflected in a plan Bernstein floated earlier this year that called for a 47% spending boost. The actual increase, he said, could be applied to soften a planned 5% cut to existing grants or bolster the 22% success rate for new investigators. The grants pressure stems from generous infrastructure awards by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and faculty hiring under the Canada Research Chairs program. NSERC would like to hike the size of its average $24,320 grant.

Some observers worry that success rates will plunge despite the new funding. "This will only allow the granting councils to barely maintain what they currently have, not meet new demand," says Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director James Turk. "I'm glad to see this token, but it's not going to solve the problem."

Wayne Kondro writes from Ottawa.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 2 April 2004