Is Canada’s research strategy too politicized?

Budget 2011 continues a governmental pattern of undervaluing basic research, bypassing the granting councils, targeting funding to specific areas, and giving preferential treatment and mega-bucks to selected scientific projects and institutions without competition or peer review. Some argue that all this falls under  the prerogatives of an elected government. The CAUT warns that “there is a real risk that this can lead to a politicization of research”. What can one say about the politics behind Budget 2011 announcements for research and post-secondary education?

The colleges are big winners: I had discussed in a previous post the special envelopes that NSERC and the CFI had already earmarked for college-driven “innovation”. Budget 2011 is now bringing them the chairs! The colleges will receive –through NSERC– ongoing funding for 30 new Chairs with a mandate to conduct applied research in fields where  “there is an important industrial need.” A further $12 million over 5 years is allocated to NSERC’s Idea to Innovation program that supports joint college-university research in areas of commercialization potential. Moreover, the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) will receive $80 million in new  funding over three years to help small and medium-sized businesses accelerate their adoption of key information and communications technologies through collaborative projects with colleges.

Are College CERCs next? Canada’s colleges are indeed fast becoming the lobby to reckon with in Ottawa. “Les mauvaises langues” say that there are many more MPs representing ridings with small colleges than in those with major universities. Whether this was the kicker or not, Canada’ universities should be reeling. The federal landscape for the support of post-secondary education will never be the same.

The universities keep losing political feathers: Canada’s 100+ universities will be fighting for 10 Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC). These will be awarded $53.5 million over five years. There is a catch though. The government wants some of them to be active in the field of “digital economy”. One wonders how many members of the US National Academy are in this field. $10 million were allocated to the Indirect Costs Program. The percentage of the increase is mathematically negligible, yet it is gigantic in its significance regarding the AUCC’s clout in Ottawa. An equally negligible clout.

The Tri-council (hence the universities again) are the biggest losers: Canada’s commitment to fundamental and peer-reviewed research continues to be a causality of a certain unfortunate mindset in Ottawa. Funding basic research is seen by some politicians as preserving “an entitlement”, a thinking perpetuated by certain bureaucrats. In the 2009 Budget, funding for the Tri-council was reduced by $147.9 million over 3 years, leading to the elimination of a number of programs in support of basic research. Budget 2010 increased funding by just $32 million per year.  Budget 2011 proposes an equally modest boost of $37 million; $15 million will go to each of CIHR and NSERC, while SSHRC will receive an increase of $7 million. This represents an increase of just 1.7 per cent for the tri-council, most of it targeted towards “industrial partnerships”.

The CAUT argues: “Adjusted for inflation, the granting councils have seen steady erosion in their base budgets even with the recent increases. Between 2007- 08 and 2011-12, funding for SSHRC will have declined by over 10 per cent in real terms. NSERC’s funding is down a more modest 1.2 per cent, while core support for CIHR will have declined by 4.1 per cent. Million in matching grants over five years beginning in 2012-13.”

To put all this in perspective, the 10 CERCs will receive $10.6-million each year, almost one-third of the new money available to the entire academic research community through the Tri-council.

The three federal granting councils saw also their increased funding equally dwarfed by the targeted funding for various government-picked institutes and centres. The new yearly allocation for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is $10-million. NSERC’s is $15-million.

Let’s scrutinize this latest example a bit. The government has decided to allocate $50-million over 5 years for the Perimeter Institute. But then one wonders, why not do the same for the equally prestigious and very comparable Fields Institute for the Mathematical Sciences or the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto?

Indeed, there are many fine research institutes in Canada. They all compete for funds normally through the Tri-council, according to very stringent reviews conducted by international panels. To succeed in these competitions, institutes have to keep improving and renewing themselves. They have to work hard trying to leverage funds from provincial and international sources. All this is healthy.

The Perimeter Institute is led by an outstanding director, is doing a wonderful job on many levels and would undoubtedly be successful in such a competitive environment. So why not compete? These recurring heavenly gifts from government are  certainly great news for Perimeter and for the Waterloo quantum physics research community, but why not earn them  the hard way just like other fine Canadian institutes?

And much more importantly, why not shelter the institute’s reputation from the following type of commentary?

“Given that there is widespread speculation that an election may be called as soon as Wednesday, the government is using any opportunity to spread the pork around ridings considered key battlegrounds. And it doesn’t get more key than Waterloo, the closest race in the country in the last election, won by the Conservatives by only 17 votes. Announcing $50-million for the riding can’t hurt if the writ drops later this week.”

See also what other Ontario scientists are saying about  “the lucky few”.

Research priorities that are cherry-picked by politicians may only be as sustainable and as stable as the government that chooses to support them. A nation’s research priorities are best identified by the research community, not by its politicians.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Canada’s research strategy too politicized?

  1. Pingback: James Colliander's Blog » The Lucky Few of Waterloo: Does the Perimeter Institute Deserve $50M Times Two?

  2. Pingback: Could the research community cost Harper a majority government? | Piece of Mind

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