Tri-council: Beyond the press releases of their presidents

The press releases of the presidents of CIHR and NSERC regarding their 2012 budget allocations are out. They are almost identical. Are they also trying to save on communication? NSERC’s is entitled “Economic action plan 2012”, yet  the meeting of Friday the 13th was about the unfolding of a “deficit reduction action plan” for 2012 and 2013. Both releases start by enumerating the goodies that the federal budget assigned: the $15 million “increase” to their respective base budgets, of course, but also the funding for their sister organizations: CFI, Medical isotopes, IRDI aka MITACS, Genomics. They mercifully spare us the amounts that have gone to the NRC. The releases gave no hint whatsoever of any resulting stress on the granting system. But, the tri-council presidents did level with the VP-Rs, so here are the few things that transpired.

Deep in the 4th paragraph, we are eventually told that “similar to other departments and agencies”, NSERC and CIHR will each be reduced by $15 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year and $30 million thereafter. However, not only the discovery grants, fellowships and scholarships are protected, but both press releases tell us that the budget document itself says so. “… these measures explicitly spare critical programs such as the Discovery Grants Program, and scholarships and fellowships programs.” We are reminded by NSERC that “A similar statement appears on page 268 relating to CIHR”.

This piece of overstated good news is actually quite telling, and we shall come back to this aspect of the story later in this post. We all know by now that each council has to re-allocate $15 million to partnership programs in the upcoming year, and maybe cut as much from their budgets in each of the following fiscal years. So what are they planning to do in order to offset this government imposed re-allocation?

First, they are cutting 10% from their administrative budgets. I am not 100% sure about my numbers since I wasn’t present at the meeting with the VP-Rs, but I –and of course the readers– welcome any correction coming our way from the Tri-council.

Another cut will land on the Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. I heard of a combined figure of 28% from the 3 councils, with the biggest share coming from CIHR and SSHRC. This is not really surprising as it is common knowledge that neither SSHRC nor even CIHR have been getting their fair share from that program, since over the last 15 years or so, most successful NCE applications have been based on disciplines under the NSERC mandate.

What about the other programs that support academic research? Well, NSERC has finally pulled the plug on the Major Resource Support (MRS) program. Formerly known as the Major Facilities Access (MFA), this program used to assist major and unique national or international (but Canadian-based) experimental and thematic research resources to cover their operating and maintenance costs. The phasing out of the MRS had actually started right after NSERC took a 5% cut in the 2009 federal stimulus budget. The program used to support  the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, the Neutrino Observatory in Sudbury, the NEPTUNE and VENUS ocean observatories headquartered in Victoria,  l‘Observatoire du mont Mégantic, the “Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory” (PEARL), but also the thematic institutes, such as Fields, PIMS, CRM, BIRS and CITA. The thinking here is that the relatively well endowed Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) should/could pick up the tab for these projects, since the Foundation was anyway instrumental in the creation of many of these facilities.

We got word that the thematic facilities, such as the institutes, will be protected by getting them moved to the discovery envelopes of their respective disciplines. Considering how interdisciplinary these institutions are, this default solution is not ideal but is much better than the alternative. In any case, this is a positive development and the NSERC leadership should be congratulated for this creative solution.

The last but not the least important piece of the re-allocation puzzle, is the cancellation of the “Research Tools and Instrumentation” (RTI) program. This is the one that allows researchers to purchase small to medium research equipment and installations, from personal computers to medium size laboratory instruments. This program is key to basic researchers and that’s where the cut will be felt most acutely by university labs. There is a faint  hope that the CFI will also pick up this piece, now that  NSERC has to give it up, but reliable sources say that the president of CFI is not interested in starting a program for such “relatively small expenditures”. What effect will this have? Well, researchers will now be forced to use their discovery grants to purchase these instruments, hence there will be less funding for students and for postdocs.

So much for the overly re-assuring statements about how “these measures explicitly spare critical programs such as the Discovery Grants Program, and scholarships and fellowships programs.” After all, it suffices to look at this graph to see that, contrary to all the rhetoric emanating from the councils, the AUCC and university presidents, and in spite of all the reassuring statements, no one has managed yet to seriously convince government of the important role and the positive impact of the basic research that is done at Canada’s universities.

In other words, and even if we did after all fare better than many –such as the Canadian Space Agency and others, which suffered deeper cuts– there is no place for the self-congratulatory statements and there is no reason to rejoice. The core programs haven’t been cut, but their data show a substantial attrition rate that Canada cannot afford anymore. There is still lots of work ahead. The kind of work that will require a sustained and concerted effort by all those willing and capable to “speak scientific truth to power”.

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