Why Canada’s research granting councils mean so little to this government’s agenda

NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR, Canada’s main granting agencies in support of university research are not doing well. Their total absence from Budget 2015 is only one of many symptoms indicating how tired they are. Tired are their ways in trying to justify themselves to government, and tired they must be of having essentially nothing to offer to the political agenda.

But first, what is the government’s agenda on research and innovation? Those of us who have been trying hard over the past few years to guess what makes this government tick on this front, need to admit that we have been wrong all along. What sometimes looked like a totally random walk by a government in search of a vision for the nation’s innovation agenda, turned out to be totally coherent and completely in line with their expected ways of governing.

The Harper government is focused, and rightly so, on stimulating the economy, and like any other political party, it is addicted to big announcements. The agenda is commendable, the other decor predictable. The problem is that this government seems to apply these formulae scrupulously, even to their funding for university research. Needless to say, this mindset sometimes skews their decisions, amplifies anomalies, and causes angst within the research community.

Much ink has been spilled about the feds’ tendencies to link research dollars to business oriented R&D. Budget 2015 continues this trend and proves that I was wrong in my optimism of last year. Indeed, there was no new funding for the three granting councils (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC), although the budget proposes $37-million in additional funds for next year, but again earmarked -in an even more heavy handed way than usual- for targeted and market-driven initiatives.

This is an old story, so let’s focus on what’s new in our speculations about what seems to be the decision-making ways of government. One can see a clear pattern of using research funding to support youth employment. These schemes surely generate jobs in real time. They are commendable even though the opportunities created are often limited, short-lived and hardly sustainable. How are their research funding decisions related to job creation? Just count the ways:

The 2008 budget saw the Harper government introducing the Vanier scholarships for graduate students, a commendable $25-million investment. The 2009 budget introduced $45-million over five years for ”Banting postdoctoral fellowships. You have to add to these the thousands of industrial internships that they funded over the years through the Mitacs Accelerate program: $56.4 million over 4 years in the latest budget alone. Now the number of very temporary, but nonetheless welcome jobs created by these programs may look measly, but this is not the end of the story.

Let’s consider another aspect of job creation via research funding. Remember the $2-billion for the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP), which was first supposed to go to research infrastructure at universities before spilling into hardly research related infrastructure in rural community colleges? Billions of additional dollars were assigned to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) over the years (a six-year $1.33 billion investment in the last budget alone). There is no doubt that all these expenditures are greatly beneficial for Canada’s research infrastructure, but for the sake of our argument here, isn’t the bulk of the money going to developers, lawyers, construction workers, architects, engineers, designers, etc …

And let’s face it, the target of the recently announced $243 million for the Thirty Meter Telescope  is not solely the two dozen Canadian astronomers who will be making good use of it at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawai. Think of the workers of Dynamic Structures in Port Coquitlam, who will be building the precise-steel enclosure that will protect the telescope from temperatures and winds in the 22-storey tower encasing it. Think of the engineers in the other Canadian companies who will be developing adaptive optics technologies for the telescope.

We had seen a good deal of big announcements in recent federal budgets, such as the $45-millions for the Institut National d’Optique, the $100-million for the Brain Canada initiative, and the $50-millions for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, not forgetting the additional $45 million over five years for Triumph in the latest budget.

Now, for big announcements one of course needs “big science.” And big science seems to attract good press. Otherwise, how can you explain the big bucket of –not only federal dollars but also universities’ scarce leveraging dollars– that the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program is costing. Even our first-tier universities are having a hard time filling these spots in view of the unreasonable expectations that the funding scale is imposing.

Then came the $1.5 Billion over 10 years “Canada First Research Excellence Fund,” which was announced in last year’s budget. This beast is turning out to be another “Big Science” announcement on steroids. Of many dozens of submissions by UBC researchers, it looks like only one “expensive and outstanding enough” project have been retained by the administration for UBC’s share of the pot. Sure, there will be another competition, but let’s face it, this program is not concerned with “shopkeeper science,” and most Canadian researchers will be frozen out of its sweepstakes.

No wonder why some reactions from the scientific community rhymed with “Canadian government focuses on splashy science infrastructure while ignoring scientific minds.”

And where do the 3 granting agencies stand in all this? Well, for one, they are trying to jump on the wagon of “big science” in any which way they can, which is lately causing a stir in Canada’s scientific community.

A whole blog post is needed to cover this rapidly developing issue of big science vs. little science. See the latest in the Globe & Mail. For now, it suffices to say that with their stagnant budgets, the trend by the 3 councils to start funding generously only “star” investigators and expensive collaborative projects is de-facto leading them to invest in fewer and fewer individual investigators, hence the emerging problem.

A friend recently sent me the following analysis of SSHRC grant trends in economics. In 2002 dollars, the average size of an economics grant in 2011-12 was $47,641. For 2014-15, the average value of a grant in that discipline was $78,490. And so, from overall success rates that were generally above 40 percent, they have declined to where they now stand at just over 20 percent. There are similar stories from NSERC and CIHR. You can read substantial analysis here and here.

In contrast to all the billions that the government has been spending lately on R&D related projects, Canada’s 3 granting agencies budgets have steadily declined. According to HESA“CIHR funding has declined by 9.1% since its peak in 2009, NSERC allocations have fallen by 8.4%, and SSHRC allocations have decreased by 9.4%. If one takes a slightly longer view and compares funding to levels seen in the first Tory budget in 2006, we have landed more or less where it began when Prime Minister Harper took office. Since 2006, CIHR has enjoyed a 0.3% increase in funding, in real terms; meanwhile, NSERC funding has increased by 2.3% from Budget 2006, while SSHRC has witnessed an overall funding decrease of 4.4%. “

The bottom line is that, as much and as hard as they try, Canada’s 3 granting agencies have nothing to offer to this government’s agenda. No big announceable and no immediate economic benefit to show for, which is keeping them at the short end of every budget’s stick.

I surely wish I had an answer to what they can do to reverse this unfortunate predicament.

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3 Responses to Why Canada’s research granting councils mean so little to this government’s agenda

  1. jimwoodgett says:

    Good analysis as usual but I think the tricouncils are actually trying to spice up their dance moves to attract the notice of government (or perhaps are dancing to the governments tune, more accurately). For example, at CIHR, there is the seemingly supreme focus on patient-oriented research (where most of the new dollars are going). The agencies are also trying to jazz up their appeal to the public. This makes political sense, as the public is funding them, but should not be the driving principle. It makes absolutely no sense to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the human brain connector, for example, before working out how to do this in more tractable organisms – why don’t we start with the nematode worm and move on from there? Not splashy or patient-related but inordinately cheaper and a fantastic platform for developing methodologies and even for testing the results.

    CIHR has also recently announced it will only allow scientists to submit a single funding application as principal investigator per calendar year. This is an enormous and profound change that has fallen from nowhere. Previously, there were two competitions a year and no limit to the number of applications. CIHR admitted that the intent here is to increase the success rate. This is a remarkably candid and foolhardy admission. In essence, they are saying that we are going to artificially throttle the demand of grant funding in order to make the limited supply look less egregiously pathetic. With real dollar reductions in operating funding, this is the only way they can wear a smiley face. But it effectively means the majority of health researchers in Canada will be placed on a forced diet, regardless of their abilities. Some will be able to enter the “big” science Foundation program but 80% will be kept in line and live precariously from grant to grant.

    Perhaps this is the right response to the starvation of operating funding gruel that has been metered out over the past decade. The current government shows no sign of rewarding the tricouncils. But then why the emphasis on creating more scientifically trained people if there are limited funds to actually perform research? Presumably, government is sold on the idea that more education (especially in STEM) correlates with a society’s health and wealth. Equally clearly, these people are destined for the private sector as the public sector scientific community is shrinking. But there is little receptor capacity – science is not a “build the workforce and the companies will come” economy. What does attract companies is proximity to world-competitive research activity. This is clear from Boston, New York, San Diego, San Francisco. So, it is ironic that the government is precisely depleting the very activities that would act as magnets, while training people who have few opportunities in Canada to make use of their skills. Brilliant!

    Lastly, this is what happens when we attempt to manage science. It’s a lesson learned over and over again: yet again, we are killing the golden goose to see how it lays those shiny golden eggs.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: origin of an evolutionary icon, Canada vs. basic research, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Great article, Nassif!

    Best,

    Young-Heon

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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