Federal Funding for Health Research in Canada

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Sources of Health Research Funding in Canada

Health research refers broadly to all research related to health, health systems or health care delivery. Sources of funding for health research include the federal government, provincial/territorial governments, higher education institutions such as universities, industry, including stakeholder businesses, and non-governmental organizations such as health charities. This HillNote provides an overview of federal sources of funding for health research in Canada.

Sources of Federal Funding in Canada for Health Research

Federal Granting Bodies

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the primary source of federal funding for health research. CIHR provides funding for biomedical, clinical, health system services and population health research. Figure 1 outlines CIHR funding by primary research theme from 1999–2000 to 2020–2021.

Figure 1 – Canadian Institutes of Health Research Funding by Primary Research Theme, 1999–2000 to 2020–2021 ($ millions)

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s overall funding increased significantly, from $250 million at its creation in 2000, to $950 million in 2007, which remained almost steady until 2016. Since 2016, funding has increased year over year, surpassing $1.4 billion in 2020–2021. The majority of funded projects fall within the biomedical pillar of research, followed by clinical, health system and population health research. The proportion for each has remained relatively stable over time.Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR in Numbers.

CIHR, through its 13 virtual institutes, has discretion over funding for research projects, which consist of investigator-initiated research and priority-driven research identified by the federal government. The organization also provides funding for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Figure 2 shows CIHR funding for health research by funding type between 1999–2000 and 2020–2021.

Figure 2 – Canadian Institutes of Health Research Funding, by Funding Type, 1999–2000 to 2020–2021 ($ millions)

Since 1999–2000, investigator-initiated research has received the largest portion of research grants, coming in at about 60% to two-thirds of total funding, followed by research in priority areas and career and training support. In 2020–2021, funding allocated to priority research increased significantly year over year, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR in Numbers.

CIHR’s budget increased significantly in 2020–2021 following the increased need for priority-driven research related to the COVID-19 pandemic. CIHR has funded more than 400 COVID-19-related research projects totalling $250 million since March 2020 to develop diagnostics, treatments, public health measures and communication strategies. Specific areas of investment include Indigenous communities’ experience with COVID-19; mental health and substance use during the pandemic; safety in long-term care homes; and prescribing and dispensing guidelines for opioids.

Some of the CIHR budget includes funding envelopes established by the federal government and provided to CIHR for tri-agency programs and for Government of Canada priorities over which CIHR has very limited discretion in allocating.

In February 2021, CIHR released its strategic plan for 2021–2031. The organization’s focus over that period will be on developing a more inclusive vision for health research in five priority areas:

  • advancing research excellence in all its diversity;
  • strengthening Canadian health research capacity;
  • accelerating the self-determination of Indigenous peoples in health research;
  • pursuing health equity through research; and
  • integrating evidence in health decisions.

While CIHR is the largest contributor to federal health research funding, there are other federal granting agencies and foundations that also contribute. The tri-agency funding programs include programs run collaboratively by CIHR, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. All three granting agencies focus entirely on funding extramural research (research conducted outside of the agency) defined by their legislated mandates. Two of the largest of these tri-agency programs are the Canada Research Chairs Program and the New Frontiers in Research Fund. A new tri-agency program, the Canada Biomedical Research Fund, is to be launched in 2022–2023 with a budget of $250 million over four years. It will fund high-risk applied research, training and talent development in support of domestic biomanufacturing capacity.

Other Departments and Agencies

The National Research Council Canada (NRC) conducts intramural (research conducted in-house) research within 14 research centres and also participates in some collaborative projects. Several of their research programs relate to health and are primarily carried out at two of its research centres: the Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre (which includes several facilities) and the Medical Devices Research Centre. The NRC also provides small grants for extramural, technology-driven research by small- and medium-sized businesses through its Industrial Research Assistance Program.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) investigates existing and emerging infectious diseases. NML researches the characteristics of pathogens, including how they are transmitted and ways to detect infection (i.e., diagnostics), and develops treatments and vaccines. PHAC and Health Canada are also involved in intramural research, extramural research in collaboration with external researchers, research conducted by unaffiliated researchers using Health Canada or PHAC premises, and external research that has been contracted out.

The Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF), administered by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, was announced in Budget 2017 to simplify and consolidate existing innovative technology programs. The SIF supports large-scale, transformative and collaborative projects, which include the category of health and biosciences.

Not-for-Profit Corporations

Genome Canada was established in 2000 to fund genomics-related research. The organization co-funds large-scale applied, leading-edge technology and translation research projects through six regional genome centres across the country, with additional funds coming from provincial governments and other stakeholders. Genome Canada provides funding for genomics-related health research and research in the agriculture and agri-food, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, environment, energy and mining sectors.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), created in 1997, funds research infrastructure such as the laboratories, equipment, buildings and databases required to conduct research. Similar to Genome Canada’s funding, CFI funding is not limited to health and includes a broad range of applications. Budget 2021 announced a new investment of $500 million over four years, beginning in 2021–2022, for CFI to launch the Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund (BRIF). The BRIF will provide funding in support of post-secondary and research hospital bioscience infrastructure needs.

A Comparison of Spending on Health Research in Canada and Selected Countries

Statistics Canada provides total federal spending on science and technology by socio-economic objectives, one of which is health (see Figure 3). While this data collection does not include health research beyond science and technology, for example health policy research, it does capture most health-related research and development spending.

Figure 3 – Federal Spending on Health-Related Research and Development, 2015–2016 to 2019–2020 ($ millions)

Federal spending on health-related research and development increased between 2015–2016 and 2019–2020. Spending on research conducted within the federal government (intramural research) has increased only slightly, from $275 million to $319 million. Funding for research conducted in other facilities (extramural research) has increased at a similar rate, rising from $1.3 billion in 2015–2016 to over $1.5 billion in 2019–2020.Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Statistics Canada, “Table 27-10-0014-01 Federal expenditures on science and technology, by socio-economic objectives,” Database, accessed 6 October 2021.

The World Health Organization’s Global Observatory on Health R&D analyzes international data collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to identify health research and development priorities based on public health needs. Figure 4 reveals the amount of annual biomedical research grants provided by the principal public funders of health research in selected jurisdictions. Even after accounting for population differences among countries and regions, the United States (U.S.) is the largest public funder of health research globally. The data also suggest that Canada, in comparison to other countries and regions and taking into account population size, is a major public funder of health research.

Figure 4 – Annual Grants for Biomedical Research by Funder in Selected Jurisdictions, 2018 (US$ millions)

The United States’ federal funder of health research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is by far the biggest funder of health research. In 2018, the NIH provided about 30 times more funding for research projects than the next highest, Canada’s CIHR, followed by the United Kingdom, the European Union, Germany and Japan.Note: AMED: Agency for Medical Research and Development; BMBF: Federal Ministry of Education and Research; EC: European Commission; MRC: Medical Research Council; CIHR: Canadian Institutes of Health Research; and NIH: National Institutes of Health.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from the World Health Organization, Global Observatory on Health R&D, “A. Annual grant amount by funder,”
Investments on grants for biomedical research by funder, type of grant, health category and recipient.

International Collaboration on Health Research

The World RePORT is “an interactive, open-access database and mapping of global research investments from some of the world’s largest biomedical funding organizations” housed at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. A review of the database reveals that many investments involve global collaborations. For example, in 2019, CIHR funded projects involving partnerships across all continents. The proportion of CIHR grants (both in number and funding) with international linkages has been increasing since the organization’s creation in 2000 and now makes up almost 15% of the total number of grants. CIHR explains that international collaboration promotes access for Canadians researchers to international expertise, technologies and facilities, while global health research focuses on topics such as the health implications of globalization, health equity of marginalized populations, neglected conditions affecting disadvantaged populations and transnational health risks and opportunities.

Additional Resources

Canadian Association for Neuroscience, Science Funding in Canada – Statistics, 2020.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR COVID-19 Investments: By the Numbers.

Government of Canada, Canada’s Biomanufacturing and Life Sciences Strategy.

Author: Sonya Norris, Library of Parliament

Categories: Economics and finance, Health and safety, Science and technology

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