Last week, the Canadian government released its 2018 federal budget and outlines of the new initiatives therein. This announcement was highly anticipated in the space community. For more than a year, the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, responsible for Canada’s space program, has been engaging with the space sector with the goal of developing an ambitious new space strategy. Canada lags behind our international peers in space funding, and this renewed interest from the Ministry level was encouraging. Canadian space fans and professionals alike were waiting with bated breath for the wonderful new directions that might be announced in the 2018 budget.
We were disappointed. Space was absent from the budget outlines. No grand new space strategy, and no additional funding for ambitious new projects. After more than a year of high hopes, there is no daring new vision for Canada in space.
Our initial dismay faded as the nuances of the budget became clearer. Among the people who mobilized most rapidly in response to the new budget were the students and young professionals of the Canadian space community, and their outlook is more hopeful.
Zaid Rana, Vice President of the student group Space Concordia in Montreal, told me: "Personally, I don't think the budget was dismissive as to what was communicated by those who voiced their concerns and recommendations, although it didn't clearly acknowledge them either. While that may seem alarming, there's certain uplifting tones to the budget and as a result, I ultimately chose to lean towards an optimistic viewpoint."
Rana is referring to two of the 2018 budget’s major initiatives that could spell good news for the Canadian space community: greater investment in science, and regulatory reform.
With broad increases to federal science funding, researchers in space-related fields will have better access to equipment and facilities, and more opportunities for involvement in experiments and data analysis on space missions. Canada’s contributions to space science can grow, even without a specific budget increase for space. The 2018 budget also calls for new programs to support women, members of visible minorities and Indigenous researchers in the sciences. The impact these programs could have on the future of the space community in Canada should not be undervalued.
Regulatory reform also has the potential to bolster the Canadian space industry. One of the key recommendations made by the Canadian government’s Space Advisory Board was to adapt federal regulations to make them more "user friendly" to space companies, more responsive to emerging technologies and better suited overall to the growing "New Space" market. Although the regulatory reforms promised in the 2018 budget are not specifically addressed to the space industry, they will likely make it easier for companies to engage in the space industry here.
"I would assume the investment to regulatory changes serves as a "we're listening to you"," said Rana. "I think this approach could potentially be an intermediary step towards shaping a new space strategy."
In spite of the positive spin that optimists like Rana are able to put on the 2018 federal budget, the fact remains that Canada’s space program will continue to stagnate until it is seen as a national priority.
Chantelle Dubois, a Manitoba student who has worked with the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Generation Advisory Council, sees this as a public engagement challenge that the Canadian space community must take on. "We haven’t done a very good job of tying the threads together on why the space program is important for every Canadian in a way that is comprehensive and relatable. It’s a source for so many things I think Canadians can agree are important: innovative technologies, economic benefits, new resources, strengthening international relationships, and of course inspiration and awe."
Although this is all well understood within the space community, it needs to be better communicated to the general public. Reaching out to Canadians to gain their support for a bold new space strategy in the next federal budget is crucial. As Rana pointed out, "Informing Canadians of our achievements in space exploration is half the equation. The other half is striving to ensure that public outreach is not just a platform to be vocal about Canadian contributions, but to also leverage their interest by engaging them."
The Planetary Society is ready to take on this challenge. We have a proven track record of strategically engaging our members to support space science and exploration in the United States, and are ready to bring this strength to Canada. Throughout the next year, we will be mobilizing our Canadian members to communicate to the Government of Canada that space is a priority worth focusing on in the 2019 federal budget.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to engage with your leaders in Ottawa over the course of the next year. You can sign up for email updates to stay informed as we develop advocacy initiatives in Canada. And if you aren’t already a member, join us at planetary.org/membership to get involved.