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AUCC call for increased funding misses the point

September 10, 2009

According to its magazine, The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) has called for $1.5-billion in new research funding over the next five years. In its pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, the AUCC argues that other countries are making major research investments, and Canada needs to do likewise if it wants to “lead the world in economic and social development”.

“Developing the skills, talent, creative and innovative capacity of Canadians is the best way to promote long-term productivity, economic growth, social advancement and prosperity”, they argue. While lauding the infrastructure spending in the last budget, they note: “It’s wonderful to have new and renovated labs, [but we] also need people to do the research.”

The request for funding suggests investments of $400-million in each of the first two years and $250-million annually for the next three. The spending would target four areas:

  • the core budgets of the granting councils;
  • the Indirect Costs Program;
  • a new program to fund 800 postdoctoral fellowships a year for two years;
  • international research partnerships.

While I applaud the audacity, I think it’s wishful thinking to expect this sort of spending announcement in the next budget. I’m afraid the stimulus ship has sailed.

While G20 finance ministers, including our own, recently agreed to maintain the stimulus spending

already in place, pressures to rein in government deficits are building quickly. This election is going to be about fiscal prudence – the Liberals are already  trumpeting the Chrétien-Martin era of deficit slaying as an example of how they’ll manage the country’s finances. Budget cuts will be the order of the day, I’m afraid, and out-of-work labourers from the hard-hit manufacturing sector are going to have a lot more sway in Ottawa than out-of-work post-docs looking for tenure track faculty positions.

More generally, I get the sense that Canadian science and research policy is changing fast, and it is important for academics to realize it. Gone are the heady days of government-funded megaprojects. No more dramatic spending announcements from governments seeking to be at the forefront of cutting edge science. Who needs Genome Canada?

Instead, I think we’re going to see less support for basic research from government, less direct investment in research, generally. Instead, government will focus on broader policy issues designed to address the “innovation system” that received so much attention earlier in the summer. Government will argue that it’s been investing to build world class academic research capabilities, but hasn’t seen the economic spinoffs. This view is supported by recent reports from both the Science and Technology Innovation Council and the Council of Canadian Academies. While researchers may have produced world-class research, they’ll still be affected when the system is overhauled.

So where’s it all going? As I mentioned, I think government will play a reduced role in direct funding for research and will use the shortage of funds to force researchers into working with industry. Perhaps this will be matched with increased direct funds for businesses that collaborate with academics. We’ll see a continued increase in co-funding programs designed to match academics with industry – that’s a no-brainer for government. The new CIHR strategic plan makes explicit mention of “solutions-based research” involving cooperation between researchers and end-users. As always, the NRC will be in for a rough ride, as the federal government continues to work out what exactly the NRC should do. I suspect the NRC will continue to move away from PI-led research labs and towards service-based research run by managers, whose work will be designed to help incubate sought-after start-ups.

Instead of receiving big stimulus spending for research, scientists may have to fight to keep what they already have. And I don’t just mean funding – I mean a system where basic research is supported, where academic achievement is a measure of success, and where researchers have flexibility to pursue the questions they believe most exciting. Especially with an election looming, it is up to scientists to make their case and defend their cause.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    September 10, 2009 07:39

    While I agree that asking for more gruel at this particular time looks greedy, if you don’t make a pitch for funds, you’ll get cut even further. It’s how the budgetary process works. The AUCC numbers ask seem high but Canada still lags the G8 average and is way behind some other countries. What you indicated the government is thinking (and seem to condone) is potentially much worse. That is, “starving” scientists will be forced into collaborating with industry by directing funds to the private sector. That sort of collaboration is doomed to fail and is an antithesis to scientific effectiveness. There are plenty of matching programs already but they are either little more than subsidies for companies or are heavily focused on product development. What they have in common is that they demote excellence to a secondary criteria. Perhaps the NRC labs will fulfill this “service” role, but the universities cannot and should not.

    AUCC (and other lobbying groups) needs to focus on the value gained from a healthy research sector through a focus on excellence. Keep the message simple. Reinforce the sustainable funding mechanism via the tricouncils and fold in the other programs to this model. The tricouncils support the vast majority of quality research in Canada and funding is primarily based on excellence. NSERC has made a start by reducing the success rate. CIHR is at 18% or so which is probably about where it should be.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      September 10, 2009 08:07

      As usual, very thoughtful comments, Jim.

      I agree that the AUCC needs to ask for more money, that budgetary decisions are at the end of a negotiated process. And I don’t think it’s greedy to make public demands. However, I think it’s doubtful that the government will be injecting major funds into research, or any other areas, in the next budget. Budget cuts are coming, and they’ll be felt across the board – if not in this budget, then soon. Research needs to make a strong case for support, since it seems to be of secondary importance to government – based on the “stimulus budget”, I’d suggest that research is well down the list of government priorities.

      I certainly don’t condone policies that force researchers to go, hat in hand, to companies for funding. I agree that this is little more than a subsidy for industry – they get both government money and exceptionally skilled researchers to effectively work for their companies. Meanwhile, researchers lose autonomy and the independence that makes basic research successful. I simply mean that it’s a politically attractive option for governments: they can “invest in research” while subsidizing companies to build the “innovation economy”. Furthermore, there’s a strong populist streak in politics these days, and arguments about academic independence and the abstract value of basic research are easily overshadowed by jobs and widgets. It’ll be a tough sell if researchers say “we don’t want to work with companies, we want to be left alone to do our research with public money”. Scientists, or their representatives, need to do some work to build support for strong academic research policy – I don’t think public support is currently very strong.

      University administrators have shown that they can be heard on the national stage (see G5…). Perhaps they are best suited to speak strongly in defense of academia, instead of encouraging calls for universities and the business sector to “work in concert” to “encourage innovation, harness and grow our brainpower, and turn research and scholarship into applications that can be developed and promoted for societal benefit” (McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor, H. Munro-Blum).


  1. Why funding for basic research is essential « Researcher Forum

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