National Post again fights research funding strawman
The National Post has taken up the research funding debate with gusto these last two weeks, generally providing a counterpoint to the Globe’s criticism of government funding cuts for research. A column this week in the Post by Jack Mintz continues the debate. Mintz, who holds a chair in public policy at the University of Calgary, provides an analysis that, in his opinion, demonstrates that the Conservative government’s recent budget – cuts notwithstanding – actually provides more money for research than the US. Some may argue about Mintz’s uncritical adoption of the government’s definition of “research funding” (Mintz cites the questionable $5.1-billion figure the government trumpets incessantly), but we’re not going to. Instead, we will agree with Mintz’s main thesis and yet again show that researchers “dependent on government support” aren’t just begging for more money.
Mintz says: “The real issue is not the amount of money being spent but whether the government’s approach is the best innovation strategy. Researchers could help a lot by framing the discussion in this way“. Researchers, whether at this blog or in letters and op-ed pieces in newspapers, have criticized the cuts to the research agencies, yes, but have been more vocal in the criticism of how this government is shaping its overall science policy. There are, in my opinion, three major concerns held by researchers:
- The budget sent a poor signal about this government’s support for research. This is due to several factors. First, the budget cut a total of $148-million from the three major research granting agencies in Canada and provided no funding for Genome Canada beyond what had already been allocated. When the government is explicitly forming a “stimulus budget” with widespread spending increases in sectors across the board, these cuts become all the more significant. Second, researchers were put out when the government responded to criticism, not with a reasoned argument to justify the cuts, but by ignoring criticism responding only with claims of a $5.1-billion investment in support of science and research. While researchers certainly applaud some of this spending (like increases to the CFI, for instance), the bulk of the $5.1-billion is for basic maintenance and infrastructure upgrades to all post-secondary institutions, including CEGEPs and technical colleges where connections to research are tenuous at best. The refusal to even acknowledge concerns about the cuts by continued trumpeting of “$5.1-billion” suggests the government is deaf to concerns of the research community. Third, the symbolism of cutting funding, especially in a spending budget, is made the more disturbing when contrasted by the rhetoric from the US. President Obama has pledged to make science and research a central component of the American economic recovery. By contrast, Canadian research budgets are “readjusted” to “minimize overlaps”. US researchers are being asked to lead the way while Canadian researchers are being audited.
- Government research policy is moving increasingly towards applied research at the expense of basic research. The major granting councils have traditionally funded a wide array of projects across the country, and have generally supported the notion that basic science is an essential component of academic research. Canada is thus a world-leader in the breadth and quality of basic research, as noted in the recent STIC report. Increasingly though, this government has prioritized outcome-focused research at the expense of basic research. The government’s 1997 science and technology strategy is explicit: “Canada must translate knowledge into commercial applications that generate wealth for Canadians and support the quality of life we all want”. CIHR’s new strategic plan calls for increasing funding towards “solutions-based research” and will require end-user input on research projects. Even basic research gets targeted towards applied goals, as in the recent announcement of the $1-billion Clean Energy Fund: “[it will] fund initiatives ranging from basic research to pre-demonstration pilot projects of technologies ranging from next generation renewable and cleaner energy systems to new technologies to address environmental challenges in the oil sands such as water use and tailings”. Every government influences research policy and funding priorities, but the current policies represent a major sea-change in how research is done at the most basic level – this isn’t about investing in cancer research at the expense of infectious diseases, or even fuel extraction vs. global warming; this is about sacrificing the quest for knowledge and its unpredictable discoveries in favour of the conservative technological pursuit of building better mousetraps.
- Academic and government research is a great Canadian success, and it should be nutured. While the recent STIC report on Canadian science, technology, and innovation pointed out shortcomings in Canada’s ability to innovate and our overall research and development system, the report was also clear that Canadian academic and government research is nearly best in the world. The report suggested, though, that our “science, technology, and innovation system” is not working. Given that academic research provides the bulk of the science that feeds the system, the problem must lie with the technology and innovation components – which correspond roughly to engineering and business. Indeed, the report, like others before it, pointed out that the major flaws in the sytem lies with industrial R&D and business investment. Government policy, instead of seeking to fix the other components of the system, is instead asking academic research to provide the technology and innovation. Forcing academic research to perform tasks for which it is ill-equipped will result only in the diminishment of the one strength of our system. Instead, it would be better to focus on strengthening the other components of the system – so that the good work of our basic researchers can be effectively used. If scientists wanted to do applied research, they would have become engineers – forcing them to do so now will simply chase them to other countries, leaving our research community as an engineering branch plant trying to make use of others’ discoveries.
The research community in Canada is large and heterogeneous. Scientists come from across the political spectrum. Certainly, most scientists are uninterested in picking a political fight with the government. Rather, the research community is concerned about current directions in science policy and about what appears to be a waning commitment to science and research by this government. We’re not trying to dictate to the government, or to simply demand more money – we’re seeking to involve ourselves in the dialogue about how Canadian science policy should be shaped and what the future of Canadian science will be.