Budget 2014 is nothing short of a paradigm shift for Canada’s research and innovation

The substantial investment in university research that the Canadian government announced today is not the only story in Budget 2014. A bigger story may be the pivotal moment and the policy shift that it represents for this government on a research and innovation front, where it had been on the defensive. The $500 million to enhance the Automotive Innovation Fund may eventually end up being a subsidy for the Chrysler plant in Windsor, and the $222 million over 5 years for TRIUMF may be business as usual. The $37-million annual increase to the three research councils (NSERC, SSHERC and CIHR) could be seen as a positive change, even if in real dollars, CIHR’s budget has fallen 6.4% since 2009, NSERC’s has dropped by 5.7%, and SSHRC’s by 6.8%. However, the clear hint in the budget document that these new funds should be directed towards basic research, is already a big shift. But there is much more, and as far as I can see, two people could be singled out as the big winners of the 2014 research and innovation sweepstakes: not only for seeing their respective asks funded, but also for the dramatic policy shift that their line items in Budget 2014 represent.

The two major developments on the research and innovation front are the government’s implicit adoption of the concept of “differentiation” within Canada’s post-secondary system, and of its explicit message to NSERC to have “its resources redeployed to other priorities within the Council, including basic discovery research.” The two people that could be credited for their obvious role in helping government shape its new direction are UBC President, Stephen Toope, and Mitacs CEO, Arvind Gupta. Let me explain. 

Why Stephen Toope? First, because as chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) (till last December), he had been advocating for a proposal by the U-15 for the creation of an “Advantage Canada Research Excellence” (ACRE) Fund, which required an immediate initial investment of $100 million, with annual expenditure gradually increasing to $400 million per year, over the next four years.

Toope was key in carrying the ACRE message to government by advocating a major strategic investment in excellence. ACRE eventually morphed into the $1.5 Billion “Canada First Research Excellence Fund,” which is to be rolled out over 10 years ($50 million in Year 1, $100 million in Year 2, $150 million in Year 3, and $200 million, subsequently).

More importantly, and that’s why one can see Toope’s fingerprints all over it, this initiative goes beyond the usual one-size-fits-all mentality that has so far governed Canada’s higher education system. Indeed, unlike the “indirect cost of research program,” which distributes funds at a rate that is inversely proportional to research capacity, this new research fund will be open, competitive and supplementary to research support from the federal granting councils and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

If this is not consistent with Toope’s and the other G5 presidents’ belief in differentiation, what is? Remember when they argued that for Canadian universities to be attractive, the best among them have to stand out among the best in the world. Remember how they got “mauled,” when they stated that the government needs to put more resources in its top 5 research-intensive universities so that they can concentrate on conducting cutting-edge research and training the best and brightest graduate students. Well, today’s government investment in the Canada First Research Excellence Fund” can be seen as saying exactly this. Actually, it is even more clever than just supporting the G5 because the Fund will be open to anyone based on a competitive process. So let everyone make their case, and  “que le meilleur gagne.”

And where does Arvind Gupta fit in all this? Well, for one, Mitacs re-appears in the federal budget for a third year in a row with a commitment of $8 million over two years for the Elevate program, which provides industrial postdoctoral fellowships opportunities (Year 1: $3 million; Year 2: $5 million). The budget also allows an expansion of eligibility across all Mitacs programs to not-for-profits where projects have strong economic outcomes: another one on Mitacs wish list. However, the real bombshell is the following:

“Mitacs will become the single delivery agent of federal support for postdoctoral industrial R&D fellowships, as the NSERC Industrial R&D Fellowships program will be wound down with its resources redeployed to other priorities within the Council, including basic discovery research.”

This is a major policy shift which, next to the reform of the SRED program, constitutes a key step towards following at least the spirit of the recommendations of the Jenkins panel on which Gupta sat.

“This consolidation of 2 offerings is consistent with the Government’s intent to streamline programs with similar objectives in order to reduce duplication and scale up the most successful approaches, in line with the recommendations of the Expert Panel Review of Federal Support to Research and Development [a.k.a. Jenkins report].”

The report had stated how, “there has been mission drift for the granting councils, as they have responded to pressure from government to be more business facing. While some business-facing programs might appropriately be under the aegis of the granting councils going forward, there is a need to clarify their mandates …”

Well, one could see this as a first corrective step away from the unbalanced agenda of NSERC, that kept tilting towards more short-term focused, and more industrially oriented research.

With this move, the government is not changing its stand about the importance of business-facing research. It is saying, let’s get the experts to develop university-industry partnerships (starting with the industrial postdocs) and let NSERC focus on its raison d’être, which is to support advanced university research.

The Jenkins panel had suggested a new, whole-of-government program delivery vehicle — the Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) — that would be the centerpiece of the federal government’s efforts to support business innovation. IRIC was supposed to “deliver an expanded Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), to provide a national “concierge” service to help firms find and access the support tools they need, and to work with partners to develop a federal business innovation talent strategy.”

One obvious way to accomplish that would have been to create IRIC by using the funds of IRAP and a chunk of NSERC’s Research Partnership Program (RPP). But again, the government is initiating the spirit of that recommendation in a more clever way. It is indeed remarkable and commendable that it did not shift the funds from NSERC’s RPP to Mitacs. Instead, NSERC will keep the funds from its postdoc program and the budget suggests these be redirected towards basic research.

What a bombshell!  Kudos for the Harper government for listening to the research community. Better late than never!

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10 Responses to Budget 2014 is nothing short of a paradigm shift for Canada’s research and innovation

  1. michelleghoussoub says:

    Great article. Congrats to Canada’s research community, and great work by those who pushed for these initiatives.

  2. Steven Siciliano says:

    Both of these initiatives are great moves. The old idea of giving money only to the G5 because they were the G5 was deeply insulting to everyone else in the country. Better to have a competitive system that results in a fair competition between institutes. After all, UBC is a world class university because of its professors not because it is UBC.

    The MITACS move is fantatistic. Having used both systems, the MITACS system worked better with my industrial clients who struggled with the NSERC industrial PDF.

    It’ll be interested to see how the ACRE roles out.

  3. Phil Hultin says:

    I am frankly surprised to see any movement back towards basic research from this government, but if it actually is what it appears to be, this is good news. Perhaps all the protests and complaints actually had some impact.

    Steven Siciliano sees the Canada First Research Excellence Fund as “a competitive system that results in a fair competition between institutes” and if fair competition results then these initiatives are indeed great moves. But I wonder. Is it even possible for a funding program like this to be “fair”? Generally, those that already have substantial resources always seem to be the ones who are given more resources. Is there any interest in a “fair” system? I can’t help but think that Piece of Mind’s position on this reflects the fact that it originates from UBC. It’s easy to say “que le meilleur gagne” when you know that you already have a head start on the majority of the field. Those of us who are employed at less-advantaged institutions in less-prosperous provinces don’t quite see it that way. We would love “fair” competition, but the CFREF just looks like the same old same old from where I sit.

  4. Brad says:

    While I agree that this cannot be *bad* news, I’m still a little leery of any “strings” that have not yet been mentioned. I also am not sure what “basic discovery science” means. Are we talking about pure curiosity-driven research? Are we we talking basic yet directed research? Can someone point me at a reference that might allay my…. hesitancy?

    • grahamlarkin says:

      Brad I think it’s pretty clear that the Harper Gov™ has been trying very hard, of late, to elide any such distinction between “discovery-driven”/pure’ research and “innovation-driven”/applied research. Consider the following recent releases from Industry Canada and the Ministry of Science & Technology:
      in documents like this

      http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/eng/h_07416.html

      and this

      http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=743509

      The first of those document asserts that “[t]he government has transformed the National Research Council, doubled its investment in the Industrial Research Assistance Program, supported research collaborations through the federal granting councils and recently created the new Venture Capital Action Plan. With these and other achievements, the Government of Canada is helping to promote greater commercialization of research and development (R&D) and is supporting world-class discovery-driven research at all levels.” The second document states that “[i]t is through increased innovation and the commercialization of discoveries that Canada’s productivity growth and global competitiveness will be secured.”

      These documents make it clear that “discoveries” (and, by extension, any “basic research”) enhancing business competition will be promoted over (a) what you’re calling “pure curiosity-driven research” or (b) discoveries in the service of such unfashionable causes as public health and environmental protection. Scientists will be expected to toe the line accordingly.

      Lest there be any doubt, I do not see this narrowing of funding priorities as a good thing:

      http://grahamlarkin.info/2014/02/07/seizing-canadas-scientists-a-dissenters-view/

  5. These are potentially good steps although I worry about the lack of any detail with respect to the new “Canada First Excellence Fund”. We know what it isn’t (infrastructure funding) but it appears to be a competitive system that presumably doesn’t overlap with the tricouncils. I might have preferred it to be simply added to the tricouncil budgets as these are the only sustainable operating funds available and all three councils are under extreme duress but this fund sounds like an “own the podium” approach, which may allow additional dollars for areas of clear leadership in Canada. This would be a good thing as long as it doesn’t get politically influenced. fNew funds for science are good news and we’ll have to wait and see what the government wants done with these new funds.

  6. David Mayes says:

    Reblogged this on mayo615 and commented:
    I am encouraged by this, but it will take at least 10 years of this new direction and funding to reverse Canada’s poor OECD numbers in innovation and productivity. Some are skeptical of the lack of detail and with good reason, as recent government announcements of venture capital funds for entrepreneurial ventures are not yet reality.

  7. Hadi Kharaghani says:

    You should take a good part of the credit for being a major advocate in making the Harper government to listen to the research community.

  8. Ghoussoub says:

    Hadi:
    I don’t really “do” government relations. I just try to be and write as objectively as possible and hope that someone reasonable in Ottawa is listening.

  9. Andrew Park says:

    This is great – as far as it goes. But what I do not see here is anything for smaller, undergraduate-focused universities, who are disadvantaged by unrealistic expectations of the numbers of HQP we can train. To a great degree, we are the ones who are mentoring the talented honours students who eventually go on to do higher degrees somewhere else. I can name at least three former honours students form our departmetn who transitioned straight to PhD programs. We were able to train these students in part because we had some funds to fuel original undergraduate research. But the feeling many of us get is that HQP = PhD, and there seems to be scant reward for kick starting the careers of promising researchers while they are undergraduates.

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