When University Presidents send out “few public bouquets” to Government

“Even on the most exalted throne in the world we are only sitting on our own bottom”– Michel de Montaigne.

“Sometimes Canada Gets it Right” is a recent joint op-ed by U. of Toronto President, David Naylor and UBC President, Stephen Toope. They were “sending out a few public bouquets” to the federal government in gratitude for the $1.3-billion Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) initiated in the 2009 stimulus budget. Last year, U. of Alberta’s President, Indira Samarasekera, threw a party in Ottawa to celebrate the federal government’s investment of $190-million dollars in the Canada Excellence Research Chair Program (CERC). In a recent op-ed for the Vancouver Sun, Alan Leshner and Stephen Toope pointed at the Perimeter Institute –a recent recipient of another $50-million from the federal government—as a “Canadian example of international research”.

Now even the most puritan among us and the least versed in the arts of politics and diplomacy understand that officials running operations, which rely so heavily on government’s largesse –such as universities– must assume the responsibility/duty of thanking their sponsors. And for that, Naylor, Toope and Samarasekera were doing their job, and a very good job at that.

All of the above-mentioned government investments surely look like great news for Canada’s post-secondary institutions. The Government’s massive support for theoretical physics (and basic research) through PI is of course welcome. The same goes for their spending big bucks to buy Canada some “excellence.” And Canada’s researchers are not as spaced-out as another (ex-) president, Harvey Weingarten, implies in another (failed) attempt at sending out “a public bouquet.” Academics are not really the type who ”… rarely thinks about institutional costs until the roof of their lab starts to leak.” They do appreciate government support for research infrastructure.

But what if it is a zero-sum game and there is no consensus in the academic research community as to these priorities of government even when advocated for by university presidents? All the above examples of government largesse have other things in common besides being catalysts for praise by presidents. All three investments (KIP, CERC, PI but also the Bantings and the Vaniers) are widely perceived by the academic community as either too much money for a too lucky few, or/and as resources diverted from other more important programs that are lacking. All three are seen as involving decision-making without peer review and selection procedures that lack sufficient transparency.

Starting with the CERC program, it is clear that the Canadian research community is miffed at the cost of this “elitist program” in a context where a large number of equally “excellent” Canadian researchers are starving for minimal research funding.  To put this in perspective, the ten new CERCs will receive $53.5-million over 5 years, almost one-third of the new money available to the entire academic research community (almost 30,000 strong) through the Tri-council. On top of that, we now hear that the additional CERCs will require equal matching funds from the universities –excluding Tri-council and CFI funds. In other words, more internal university funds could be diverted from other priorities so as to attract this federal funding. As to decision-making, no one really knows why the University of Alberta ended up with 4 out of the 19 CERCs, while McGill had none, nor the reasons behind the absence of female scientists among the appointees.

As for KIP, remember that its funding was announced in the 2009 stimulus budget that cut $147.9-million from the three granting councils. The juxtaposition of the two decisions created a perception that the government had sacrificed tri-council research funding for bricks and mortar, and that University Presidents had sold out their researchers for their own pet capital projects. Notwithstanding that much of the KIP funding ended up going to smaller, often rural (but hardly research-oriented) community colleges, the arbitrariness of the decision-making also puzzled the research community, which could not understand for example why UBC got a third of the amount received by the University of Alberta. Without giving any hint as to the program’s guiding principles, evaluation criteria, and measures of priority, we are told by the presidents, that “the responsibility for delivering the Knowledge Infrastructure Program fell to Industry Canada – not typically a program delivery department. Yet a team was assembled that reviewed proposals, hammered out a deal with each province and monitored progress.”   

The Perimeter institute is another story of direct funding from government, which circumvents peer-review and open competition. The total Canadian public investment in the Perimeter Institute over the past ten years exceeds $278-million so far. Our university presidents should also be speaking up about the many fine research institutes in Canada, which 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, and they have to work hard to try to leverage funds from provincial and international sources.

The picture becomes even darker, when a senior executive of the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC) is rumoured to be saying that any cut to the Tri-council of less than 10% in the upcoming budget should be considered a success. You know you have a problem, when you start to factor in the following realities:

    • To most Canadian academic researchers, the 3 granting councils (NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR) are the main –and often the sole– source of research funding;
    • The 3 councils are the favourite and most reliable sources of research funding, since (most of) their programs are based on open, transparent, competitive, and relatively fair review processes run by qualified peers (not by KPMG!). Researchers need not resort to a Lazaridis for help in making their case.
    • The Tri-council’s budgets for academic discovery have been stagnant for years now, while the number of applicants continues to increase significantly. NSERC’s Discovery Grants program alone has seen the number of its applicants increase from 3300 in 2010, to 3482 in 2011, to 3900 for the 2012 competition.
    • Canada’s researchers are willing to fight for their Tri-council grants, just like after the 2009 cuts, when 2,250 researchers, including some of the country’s most respected scientists, signed an open letter to the Prime Minister.

There is something problematic in this picture and we might soon run into a perfect storm unless Canada’s university presidents develop a more coherent message that gives priority to their researchers’ dreams and aspirations regarding the nature, the delivery mechanisms, and the academic value of what they are asking from Government. We can then all pitch in, and join forces in sending out “public bouquets” to Ottawa. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

This entry was posted in Board of Governors, Op-eds, R&D Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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