AUCC call for increased funding misses the point
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.