Fairy Dust Funding and the Election
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.