My friend had called from Ottawa right after the budget lock-up to “re-assure me” that the three research councils did OK. The AUCC president, Paul Davidson, had also issued a press release offering praise for “investments (that) will preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding”. Most universities websites followed suit in congratulating government. Then came the email, “With NSERC, it is as we feared! They have extracted and diverted substantial funds. See the CIC press release below. The response given on UBC’s website is just wrong on the facts!”
The 2012 budget indicates indeed that Government has directed Canada’s research granting councils to pursue internal savings of $74 million phased in over 2012/13 and 2013/14. Although $37 million in savings are being reallocated within the granting councils in 2012/13, these are targeted to industry-academic research partnership initiatives. For example, in NSERC’s case, this directive may amount to essentially re-allocating $15M from its Discovery Grant Program, where basic research is supported, to its Research Partnership Program. This depends of course on the suggested potential cuts put forward by NSERC as part of the government’s 5-10% cost cutting exercise. I guess we will know soon enough.
One could of course try to rationalize this move as essential in the context of a cost-cutting budget, where government needs to find some cash to support companies R&D effort. But then one realizes that what was supposed to be a “transformational” budget for R&D, has instead turned out to be a treasure trove for those who count on government money to do D&C (i.e., Development and Commercialization).
Indeed, Chapter 3 of the 2012 budget provides $65M for the NRC to help it refocus on business-led, industry-relevant research, $110 million per year to double support to companies through the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), $400 million to help increase private sector investments in early-stage risk capital, and to support the creation of large-scale venture capital funds led by the private sector, $100 million to the Business Development Bank of Canada to support its venture capital activities, $12 million per year to make the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence program permanent, $105 million over two years to support forestry innovation and market development, $95 million over three years, starting in 2013–14, and $40 million per year thereafter to make the Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program permanent and to add a military procurement component.
What did the universities get? Essentially, $500M for Canada’s Foundation for Innovation (CFI) over 5 years to build research infrastructure, but not before the universities (and their provincial governments) divert their own resources to find 60% in matching funds. Is this why the AUCC is rejoicing?
That the government has elected to direct its cuts on Tri-council programs, which support thousands of researchers at Canada’s universities, is surely the prerogative of an elected majority government, but why are the universities cheering on? Why can’t they at least say how short-sighted it is to be spending so generously on development and commercialization, while continuing a multi-year trend of cutting support for advanced basic research at universities, which is the key to any future development?
The universities cannot ignore what is being articulated and said by their best scholars, the likes of Richard Hawkins, a Canada Research Chair in the Social Context of Technology, at the University of Calgary.
“The budget is at its most disappointing with respect to the role of higher education in the innovation system. This is important in that universities constitute the one part of the system that depends almost entirely upon the public purse. Statements about “reallocations” in research councils may be innocent, but they smack of government setting the research agenda; prioritizing research spending according to assumptions that one form of knowledge has more market value than another.
Economies grow largely because they are able to diversify and create new combinations of production factors. In a knowledge economy, diversity is everything, making the notion that you can pick or prioritize knowledge winners the most erroneous of all erroneous assumptions. Moreover, public investment in “blue sky” science has been shown consistently to yield the highest coefficients in terms of stimulating and supporting innovation. This unencumbered exploratory capability is also what virtually every survey has shown to be the principal value of university research to business. The Budget has a decidedly competitive agenda on the business side, but on the basic research side there is more than a tinge of winner picking.
The main focus of the Budget, however, is not on basic research, but on knowledge transfer, commercialization and industry partnerships. The problem is that there seems to be no awareness at all of how closely these outcomes are related to increasing our strengths in basic research. One cannot be prioritized and not the other. This is a lesson that our principal competitors learned long ago, but that we in Canada have yet to learn, so it seems.”
It remains to be seen, whether the 2012 federal budget will lead to a call to arms for Canada’s research community. The Canadian Consortium for Research has fired the first salvo in this press release (CCR.Press.release). I expect to see more coming in the year ahead.