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Tri-council funding agencies appear before HoC Finance Committee

November 20, 2009

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”.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    November 20, 2009 16:08

    The PDF link took me to a Kajiji advert??

    The tricouncil leadership is taking a very government-facing approach. To earn more funds, give the government what it wants. The inherent problem with this is that the tricouncils are meant to be advising the government on matters of science and government is meat to listen, evaluate the validity, and appropriate funds to the most compelling cases. Instead, the situation is reversed. The government (or, worse, lobbyists) is generating a wish-list which it is then telling the councils to respond to. This leads to exchanges of buzz words and topical, top-of-mind policies. It looks dynamic and responsive, but it is usually fleeting and comes at the expense of more measuring thinking. The tricouncils are entrusted with a long-term view that recognizes that big questions cannot be addressed with small answers. Of course, the public wants to hear about what is being done about swine flu or whatever else is the catch-phrase of the day and the government, wisely, wants to show it is directing efforts to deal with this issues. But this elevator-pitch science is about as useful and superficial as a chocolate fireguard in an inferno. It is the tricouncils who have the audience and interface with the government, as well as a responsibility of making best use of tax-payers funds. Instead, they appear to be bartering their desire to attract new funds in exchange for abdication of their obligation to supporting existing sustainable research.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      November 20, 2009 16:14

      Jim, well said – I think you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head.

      ps. link’s fixed. Guess the link addresses got mixed up while researching Christmas gifts for my kids…

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