Research Funding at Risk
While the country is focused on the Olympics, and government is prorogued for “recalibration”, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is busy shaping the 2010 Federal Budget. Perhaps to soften the blow, senior officials have leaked a broad outline of the spending squeeze outlined in the document, set to be tabled March 4.
Speaking generally, officials are suggesting that the 2010 budget won’t include any tax increases or any new spending measures beyond those already announced. The stimulus plan outlined in last year’s budget will continue, but will not be extended.
The government is facing a purported $56-billion deficit, but has refused to raise taxes. To balance the books, therefore, deep spending cuts will be required. Government officials have suggested, though, that the largest spending areas – health, education transfers, and pensions – will be untouched. The government suggests that a balanced budget can be achieved by “curbing growth” in all other areas of government spending, a claim that is widely dismissed.
So what does this mean for research? First, despite insistent arguments from policy analysts and economists which suggest strong investment in R&D is a cornerstone of economic recovery and global competitiveness, research funding was not included among the “sacred cows” of health, education, and pensions. This means that, at best, research funding will have its growth “curbed” – no new spending, no new programs, and a real loss in funding in terms of inflation and overall government spending.
Second, by announcing that there would be “no new spending”, the government has suggested it will implement the research spending cuts outlined in the 2009 budget. These include $147.9-million in budget cuts to the tricouncil funding agencies, $167.8-million in cuts to Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, and $27.7-million in cuts to the National Research Council. And these cuts presumably don’t include widely rumoured cuts to the federal civil service, which includes employees at many federal research institutes. It also suggests that Genome Canada, whose funding was cut in 2009, will be left to wither on the vine, administering programs it began in 2007 and 2008, but without money to launch anything new or renew expiring projects.
By reducing research funding, the government is proving that the more than $2-billion invested in infrastructure – money, it suggested, that underlined its support for research – was nothing more than a makework project for the construction industry. Universities and colleges now have plenty of shiny new lab space and new equipment, but there will be less money to actually use it.
This will be a missed opportunity: we’ve made the investment in space and equipment, why not leverage that by allowing researchers to make the most of it? Instead of empty labs and cutting-edge equipment gathering dust, investment in research now will ensure that the infrastructure spending does not go to waste. By the time we return to balanced budgets, the advantages conferred by the infrastructure spending will be obsolete. Now is the time to invest in our researchers.
Finally, an important point: the government’s plan to balance the budget will require economic growth, and to that end it is planning to invest in job-creation programs. Too often it is forgotten that research grants support the employment of highly-trained personnel. Cuts to research budgets mean fewer operating grants, and those who lose funding invariably have to lay off employees. In a very real way, funding research funds employment. This funding also supports the training of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, whose high-level of training contributes to increased productivity. Cutting funding results in a wasteful increase of highly-trained, unemployed researchers.
This government has the opportunity to ensure that Canada’s economic recovery does not depend on a sudden uptick in the price of oil, or an unexpected surge in demand for timber. We have the opportunity to build a vibrant, modern research-based economy that can compete with the world. We’re as well positioned to do this as anyone, and better than most. Furthermore, the government has already started the job with its infrastructure spending. Let’s not waste this chance.