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!