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Fairy Dust Funding and the Election

March 25, 2011

Here we go again.

All signs point to the House of Commons finding the government in contempt of Parliament today, with a non-confidence vote launching a spring election.

So what can we expect?

Widespread pandering for votes, especially among seniors and ethnic communities, is already happening and is likely to intensify. Other, more segmented groups will also likely be targets of special attention, if the government’s budget is any indication. Tax breaks for piano lessons and volunteer firefighting, subsidies for home renovations. This is how political parties make friends and influence people in our age.

Unfortunately, research funding is increasingly subject to the same process: announcements of boutique programs to maximize political benefit. While the government has made significant investments in numerous research initiatives during its tenure, basic tricouncil funding has remained essentially flat. Even though the tricouncil is the primary mechanism by which research is funded in this country.

The fact is: tricouncil funding is unsexy. Despite their best (and often woefully misplaced) efforts, CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC suffer from the impression that they are impersonal bodies that base funding decisions on the opinions of faceless research peers.

This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, it is far more sexy for the Junior Minister of Science and Associated Things to stand up in the foyer of the Perimeter Institute and promise money to the part-time home of Stephen Hawking. It is way cooler to give money to Rick Hansen and his Foundation for Spinal Cord Research than to give it to CIHR which may – or may not! – allocate the funds in the same way. And whereas funding a new hockey rink in Quebec City is shameless vote-begging, promising $45-million to the Institut National d’Optique in the same region is simply supporting good science.

This is unfortunate because the tricouncil agencies, wayward as they can be, have an integrated and balanced approach to funding research. They take the long view and have built relationships (however rocky) with researchers. One-off announcements of major funding for specific research projects may be splashy, but they’re short-sighted. At best, we end up with a disjointed approach to research, with none of the “synergies” and “network effects” the government so desires, without the balanced approach that an effective research tradition requires. At worst, we end up with an increasing number of white elephants competing for a stagnant pool of ongoing research support. Researchers should demand a more coordinated vision for research support in this country, one based on long-established and essential practice of peer review.

Alas, this pick-and-choose approach to research funding is likely to worsen rather than improve during a campaign, where every utterance is squeezed for maximum political benefit. We will need to look past the millions of dollars sprinkled like fairy dust across the research spectrum and determine whether any of the parties offer anything like an integrated vision for research. Whether any of them demonstrate the respect for peer-review essential to a strong research tradition. And to determine whether any of them will listen to the community of researchers and invite them to participate in setting our country’s research agenda.

And it will be up to researchers to reach out to them. To tell them what’s important. To move beyond cries of “more, more!” and contribute meaningfully to a debate on issues that are central to Canadian research. To put our ideas in front of the political parties and find out where they stand.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2011 08:13

    Awesome post Ron. I wrote on the same subject this morning but yours is so much better.

  2. Jim permalink
    March 28, 2011 13:21

    Possible explanation for the apparent distrust of the tricouncils by the Harper government – they are seen as an evidence-based, three party coalition.

    • Erik permalink
      April 1, 2011 15:53

      Well said, Jim.

      I’m an international relations undergraduate student with an odd interest in everything science policy. What are everyone’s thoughts on science policy formation by political science/ public policy majors and the non-scientific community? Or to be more specific, what do you think we have to bring to the table (if anything at all?). Are there specific areas where people with this type of expertise can aid the scientific community in being heard?

      Any replies would be greatly appreciated; finding legitimate online discussions is a rare treat!

  3. April 4, 2011 12:28

    Robust peer review is what makes research funding investments strategic. Moreover, the perception that research funding is made based on factors besides merit hurts the scientific community. Winners are regarded as undeserving. Losers don’t take the rejection as an incentive to improve. When science funding appears to scientists to be a game of chance, why should they continue to do science? Canada’s R&D policy needs to be fixed.

    • Jim permalink
      April 5, 2011 06:54

      Unfortunately, certain politicians (and members of the public) see peer-review as:
      1. Vested elitists supporting vested elitists (i.e. we are an exclusive and self-serving club).
      2. Obstacles for their own ability to direct the funding to their own pet-projects.
      3. An iconoclastic system that, through its natural resistance to undue influence, must be reformed.

      I’d be the first to argue that peer-review is imperfect, especially with very low funding rates, but undermining merit or, worse, redefining merit based on qualitative measures that make even the most liberal social scientist quiver (patient impact?), will result in dumbing down of research. The irony is that there is plenty of very poor science being done right now – largely under the auspices of non peer-reviewed funding sources (such as patient donations). This is a reflection of donors being frustrated when they can’t direct their funds and interested parties being willing to accept the funds under any circumstances. There has been a major shift, largely invisible, of research funding (especially in the healthcare sector) away from peer-review both via cherry-picking by the government and donors/fund-raising. This is a case of not getting what you paid for.


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