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Letter to Harper from CAUT -February 12, 2009

April 1, 2009

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON  K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister:

On behalf of the Canadian Association of University Teachers representing more than 65,000 academic and general staff in 121 universities and colleges across Canada, we are writing this open letter because we are alarmed that scientific research in Canada is being undermined through underfunding and by attempts to specify what scientists study. We believe urgent action is needed to help safeguard scientific research and keep talented researchers in Canada.

While the federal budget promised billions for university and college infrastructure and for organizations that fund research infrastructure, it provided no new money for Canada’s arms-length granting councils that fund university research – the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

These granting councils fund the bulk of academic research in Canada, and our country relies more heavily on university-based research than any other major industrialized country. Not only were granting councils denied more funding, they were told that their budgets will be cut by $147.9 million over the next three years through “streamlining operations” and “aligning programs” with government priorities.  In stark contrast, the Obama administration is now poised to add billions in new funding for the two American granting councils – the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. We are deeply concerned that unless your government acts quickly, many of Canada’s best academics will leave for the U.S. where their research can be properly funded.

Canada’s own granting councils are not the only ones to suffer in the 2009 budget. The National Research Council of Canada was also denied new funding and told to find savings of $27.6 million over three years – funds it has been directed to give to small and medium-sized business “to innovate.”  The budget also failed to provide funding for Genome Canada, the principal funder of large-scale research projects in areas such as cancer research and agriculture.
These decisions follow the government’s elimination of the position of national science advisor, the one scientist who had direct access to you and whose job was to provide expert advice on the government’s role in matters of science and science policy.

Compounding the problem are attempts to direct what research is done. This is not a new issue. The 2008 federal budget stipulated that increased funding for NSERC could only be spent on research in the automotive, manufacturing, forestry and fishing sectors – leaving no opportunity for the majority of Canada’s biologists, chemists and physicists. SSHRC was limited to spending its new funding in two areas – researching the impact of environmental changes on Canadians and examining economic development needs in northern communities. Important as these are, it was a narrow directive to apply to the only council responsible for funding Canada’s research in philosophy, history, criminology, anthropology, drama, literature and other humanities and social sciences. This followed the 2007 budget, which restricted all new SSHRC funding to research in management, business and finance, meaning there was no new funding for the majority of Canada’s scholars in the social sciences and humanities.
The 2009 budget allocates $87.5 million for new Canada Graduate Scholarships but specifies that “scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.” The budget also stipulates that the bulk of infrastructure money given to the Canadian Foundation for Innovation is for future priority projects identified by the Minister of Industry (albeit in “consultation” with the Foundation).  And, instead of allowing a scientific peer review process to determine which research centres are funded, the budget allocates $50 million to the Institute
for Quantum Computing in Waterloo for a new research facility “that will contribute to achieving the goals of the Government’s science and technology strategy.”

You have often said that governments are terrible at picking winners and losers in the economy. Why then, is it appropriate for government to pick winners and losers in scientific research? History has shown that decisions about the merits of scientific research are best left to scientists, not governments or politicians. The world’s most important scientific discoveries have typically come from basic research, driven by researchers’ quest for knowledge, with a scientific peer-review process making decisions about what areas and what research to fund. As Canada’s best known scientist and Nobel laureate John Polanyi wrote almost a decade ago, “We have struggled for a long time to come to terms with the fact that our universities serve the public interest best when free of government interference in academic affairs.”
We urge you to take some important and urgently needed steps to help safeguard the future of Canadian scientific research and preserve our country’s ability to retain and attract top researchers.
As a first step, we call on you to increase research funding for Canada’s three granting councils to match, on a proportional basis, that being introduced by the U.S. government. Based on the relative size of our economy, that would translate into a boost of between $500 million and $1 billion.

Secondly, we call on you to ensure that programs and scholarships funded by the granting agencies are not restricted to specific fields and are judged on the basis of merit by the scientific community.

Third, we ask you to ensure that infrastructure projects funding provided through the CFI or through the university and college infrastructure initiative are similarly judged on the basis of their scientific merit by the research
community.

Prime Minister, we cannot stress enough how vital it is to the future of scientific research in Canada that you act quickly to rectify this situation. Most economists recognize that investments in research provide both immediate economic stimulus and long-term improvements in knowledge and social well-being. The Obama administration recognizes this and has acted accordingly, and we hope your government will too.

Sincerely,

Penni Stewart                            James L. Turk
President                                  Executive Director

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