Tri-council funding agencies appear before HoC Finance Committee
As part of ongoing pre-budget consultations, on Nov. 5 the House of Commons Standing Committee received representatives from NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR, who presented a submission arguing for increased and ongoing funding for the three agencies. The full text of the tri-council submission can be read as a .pdf file here.
The vapidity of the title sets the mood for the submission: “Canada at the Leading Edge: Common Vision, Concerted Plan”. At a time when science is far from the attention of policy makers, the leaders of the three arm’s-length agencies – de facto representatives of the scientific community – squander an opportunity to make a strong case for science or to present actual suggestions of how to strengthen our system.
The submission opens with a summary of the well-worn statistics from the recent STIC and CCA reports, and echoes the same conclusions – our academic research is world-class but we don’t innovate enough. The report thus takes up the innovation mantra, and promises that research investments will lead to innovation. It isn’t clear, given that we rank near the top of OECD funding levels for academic research, why this funding hasn’t already led to increased innovation. Perhaps that could be explained before simply assuming that more funding equals more innovation.
Then comes an interesting passage that I don’t quite understand. The Introduction concludes:
CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC share a common vision to develop a more agile, dynamic, and responsive approach to funding research…
The same phrase is repeated in the conclusion. What does this mean? Sounds to me like stable, long-term funding is to be sacrificed at the altar of increased flexibility. And what exactly is a “dynamic approach” to funding research? This bureaucratic nonsense speak could have real consequences for researchers. Does agility, dynamism, and responsiveness mean that the agencies will be rapidly changing funding priorities from year to year? Will the agencies just start chasing the hottest trends?
This is a potential disaster for academic research. Real breakthroughs take years and years to develop. Take, for instance, the career of one of Canada’s eminent researchers, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg. Dr. Sonenberg, James McGill Professor in Biochemistry at McGill University, has just been awarded CIHR’s Researcher of the Year for Biomedical and Clinical Research. He is also a Gairdner laureate, and has won numerous other awards and distinctions for his groundbreaking work on protein translation control. Dr. Sonenberg’s fundamental work has led to advances in cancer treatment, theories on memory, and a deep understanding of a fundamental area of cell biology. But these advances took a career to develop. By working in this single area, Dr. Sonenberg was able to push the frontier of knowledge incrementally. His work wouldn’t have been a likely candidate for “dynamic funding”. Only through patient and stable funding are researchers like Dr. Sonenberg able to achieve success. Being agile, dynamic, and responsive is anathema to real scientific progress.
In any case, the report goes on to make three recommendations to the committee: “increase investment… to expand Canada’s research excellence” (yawn); “increase investment to support… top postdoctoral fellows” (great idea, short on details); and “increase investment… to lead strategic partnerships on priority challenges for Canada” (get academia working with industry to solve problems like H1N1 and the medical isotope crisis – not a bad idea so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of solid research for basic, fundamental research). I think it’s absolutely correct to suggest increased funding – especially given the disconnect between infrastructure spending increases and projected decreases in operating funds – but let’s make sure that money isn’t squandered chasing “current events”.