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Post-budget analysis

March 23, 2011

So, the 2011 federal budget was released yesterday.

And how did research fare?

Well, like so many other sectors it was sort of “more of the same”. Nothing to send one to the heavens or the barricades.

Just sort of… meh.

So, what was there? Well, there was an annual increase in tricouncil funding, though still not enough to offset this year’s scheduled cuts from the 2009 budget (combined with last year’s increase of $32M for this year, that’s a total of $69M back from the $87.2M scheduled to be cut). There’s also a small increase in funding for associated indirect costs. This is something researchers have been asking for, which suggests the government has been listening to concerns.

Genome Canada wasn’t forgotten this time, but CFI was (to be fair, CFI is still slated to receive $75M this year from Budget 2009).

There’s more money for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which I suspect will be more carefully gender balanced this time.

There’s the ambiguous promise of deficit reduction through ambiguous “spending reviews” which could easily cut millions from research, but there are no details provided.

There’s also money for colleges, money for collaborative research projects, clean technology, etc etc etc.

Like the rest of the budget, it’s a laundry list of unrelated, unimaginative, and uninspiring spending measures. Nothing to decry, really, but nothing approaching a vision for the future of research in Canada.

Of course, it doesn’t matter does it? The NDP has joined the Liberals and BQ by stating they won’t support the budget, and so the government will fall and we’re heading to an election.

So this should really be seen as the Conservative Party financial election platform. What does it say?

Well, I think it demonstrates that the Conservatives AREN’T enemies of research. Sure, they may lack vision and leadership, and they certainly place politics well ahead of evidence-based policy, but they haven’t slashed funding the way we’ve seen in other countries (like the UK), and signs are that they don’t mean to.

That isn’t to say there aren’t concerns, though. As Jim pointed out in response to yesterday’s post, one major concern of this government has been its tendency to cut out the middle man (ie tricouncils) and make direct funding decisions. We see this in this year’s announcements of funding for the Perimeter Institute and the Institut National d’Optique – both great institutes, without a doubt – and $100-million to a Canadian Brain Research Fund. Nearly $200-million dedicated to research, but without peer review or accountability built in. We saw this last year in funding for TRIUMF and the Rick Hansen Foundation for spinal cord research.

This kind of direct funding means decisions about research funding are no longer in the hands of experts who review and evaluate the science, but are rather in the hands of bureaucrats with little experience in research but lots of experience in maximizing political returns. This is entirely consistent with two urges in this government: the mistrust of experts and the need to centralize decision-making.

While the government has kept the dollars flowing towards research, they’ve been increasing their control over where it goes, which is a more pernicious trend.

Thankfully, we’ll soon have a chance to determine whether the other parties would approach research funding any differently. Indeed, we may even be able to convince them to do so.

 

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