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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 1996

Federal Policies Create Crisis in University Research Funding

Recent federal government policies have clearly precipitated a funding crisis in university research -- this despite a century of commitment at Canadian universities to both basic and applied research projects.

When Arthur May was president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, he warned that Canada was in danger of becoming a Third World country in research and development. This has not changed.

Canada is still behind most Organization for Economic Co- operation and Development countries in its R&D performance. Our investment in university R&D lags many OECD countries particularly the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. (See graph on Total Expenditures on R&D). (The graph is the one from Trends 1996, page 25, AUCC.)

The National Research Council began funding university research towards the end of World War I. After World War II there was a dramatic increase in the scope of university research.

The federal government recognized the importance of science in the war effort and realized the postwar economy would rely heavily on research and development as well as needing a concomitant increase in knowledge about Canadian society, its successes and its ills.

The postwar years saw the creation of the three federal research councils which have been the key engine in the development of university-based research in recent decades. The councils themselves are highly regarded around the world, and they have helped to make Canadian research internationally competitive.

Research and development was much debated during the Mulroney years. There were some important initiatives such as the creation of the Green Plan. The Conservatives maintained the funding of the federal research councils. However, they seemed to lack a coherent plan to guide their research policy.

The Science and Technology Review

When the Liberals came to power, they launched a full-scale review of Canada's science and technology policies. John Manley, the minister responsible for Industry Canada and Dr. Jon Gerrard, the Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development sponsored a national consultation.

CAUT welcomed this and participated at all levels. There was then nothing but silence. Various anonymous voices within the government suggested powerful ministers were opposed to any science or research policy as were significant players in the Finance Department despite the commitments made in the Liberal Red Book.

Eventually the hand of the Cabinet was forced by the publication of the response of the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology (NABST) entitled, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. Finally the review was published shortly after the 1996 budget.

As AUCC noted, "the strategy is designed to entice the private sector to be a more active partner in the country innovation system and to restructure the government's own scientific activities in support of this end." The overriding purpose is to encourage the transfer, commercialization and diffusion of technology.

In this context university research got short shrift. Both AUCC and CAUT protested. AUCC told the government that its strategy "falls short of the front end of its basic underlying equation. There is no doubt that Canada needs to enhance its technology and transfer capability. However, it is shortsighted to believe that this objective can be achieved at the expense of its investments in knowledge creation."

It argued that university research is one of the principal generators of job growth in this country and it cited Eric Newell, CEO of Syncrude of Canada, who spoke at a recent AUCC meeting about the basic university research which transformed his entire industry and helped make it the viable industry it is today.

Dr. Joyce Lorimer, then president of CAUT, wrote to Dr. Gerrard expressing similar sentiments. She noted the hard work both he and Mr. Manley had put into the creation of a science and technology strategy over the objections of some of their colleagues.

She also noted that there were some positive recent signs such as the new health services research fund, the permission to NSERC to create an investment fund, and the decision to fund proper statistics on research and development at Statistics Canada. Dr. Lorimer also noted earlier announcements which had a direct bearing on university research such as the joint program between SSHRCC, Citizenship and Immigration, and other federal departments for research on immigration policy.

However, she expressed great disappointment about the treatment of the university sector in the Science and Technology Review and expressed concern about the existing and proposed federal structures relating to research.

Dr. Lorimer said there was a concern in the university community that Industry Canada was simply not interested in university research and that no one seemed mandated to work with the universities and colleges in the same manner as the ministry works with companies in the private sector.

She also expressed reservations about the proposed structure for advice to the government announced in the review. NABST will be abolished and replaced by a new Advisory Council on Science and Technology composed of distinguished individuals from outside the government.

Unlike NABST this Council will no longer generate its own reports. It will review the departmental estimates and annual reports. It appears it will do this in secret and report directly to the Economic Development Committee of cabinet.

"We think it should be an open institution," Dr. Lorimer said. "Its agenda should be public. The papers it receives should be available, and its advice to government should be published."

She urged the government to provide a formal route into this process for the university community. She also noted that much will depend on the quality of the persons appointed to the advisory council. She urged that there be an appropriate number of representatives of the academic community and that they be both bench scientists as well as administrators.

The federal granting councils: MRC, NSERC, SSHRCC

Despite the recommendations of the Commons Finance Committee over two successive years that the funds be at least maintained, new cuts were announced in the estimates that went with the budget (see graph on NSERC).

The SSHRC's grants and fellowships budget for the current fiscal year has dropped to just under $79 million -- a steep decline from the $88.7 million SSHRC has awarded for research and graduate student training in the social sciences and humanities during the preceding year (1995-96).

At NSERC, the Collaborative Project Grants (CPG) program was terminated in October 1995, though existing grants will be honoured. The Collaborative Special Projects program has also been terminated.

The government listened to one of the arguments in the NABST Report, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. It decided to create a $65 million fund to investigate what works and what does not in Canada's health care system. This fund will be administered by MRC. It will invite partnerships from the provinces and the private sector.

CAUT and AUCC supported this fund in principle. CAUT considers there should be collaboration with SSHRCC on the project.

While pleased about the new fund, Dr. Friesen, the president of MRC, voiced concern that because of continuing fiscal difficulties, MRC's base budget was further reduced by three per cent for 1998-99, following the previous cuts announced in the 1995 federal budget.

Network of Centres of Excellence

The government maintained the program of 14 centres, dropping four and adding four new ones. However, the real question is whether the program will be renewed in 1998 at the same level of funding. There has been some indication that part of the funding at least might become permanent, but the dimensions of the government's support are not yet known.

Other federal research programs

The research and science budgets of some other agencies which frequently collaborate with the universities were also significantly cut. This has a domino effect on both faculty and students who work in collaboration with these programs.

The $72 million cut in the research capacity of AECL is a good example. (See article in this issue.) This includes the laboratory where Bertram Brockhouse did his Nobel-prize winning research. The media have highlighted the attacks on the Freshwater Institute (See article in this issue) and its Experimental Lakes program. The vicissitudes of the Green Plan suggests that research on the environment may suffer significantly. Uncertainty hangs over AIDS research (see article).

On the other hand, the government committed $16.6 million over five years to the budget of TRIUMF at the University of British Columbia and increased its funding for the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Northern Development Minister Ron Irwin also announced the cuts to university funding of the Polar Continental Shelf Project will be restored.

Other federal agencies

The budget continued the attack on other federal agencies that support university research such as the National Library and the National Archives. Their budgets were cut by 8.4 per cent and 14.6 per cent.

Foreign aid was cut 14 per cent over the next three years. Between 1994-95 and 1998-99, this assistance will have decreased by 34.3 per cent. CIDA funds important operational and development work in the Third World. Higher education is a significant player in this work, and it seems likely that there will be substantial cuts to programs involving the higher education community.

Research Infrastructure

All these developments indicate that there is a major crisis in the funding of university research. The consequence has been an unprecedented alliance of university presidents, faculty and researchers through AUCC, CAUT and the National Consortium on this subject.

This first manifested itself in June when the stakeholders in the university research community met with Paul Martin and John Manley to outline their concerns. The consequence of that meeting was a general realization that the community had to move rapidly to come up with concrete funding suggestions to meet real problems. The time for lamentation was passed.

The prime minister then opened the door by calling a first ministers' conference in June and suggesting a second national infrastructure program.

On what, however, would infrastructure money be spent? Premier Romanow suggested that there should be a significant program of support for research and development. AUCC, CAUT and the National Consortium then combined to support this idea and to argue that a substantial portion (20 per cent) of any infrastructure program should be devoted to university research.

If the second infrastructure program were on the same scale as the first, this would involve $1.2 billion. There seems to be support in the Liberal caucus where there is concern that the Liberals appear to have ignored their Red Book promises (See article by Giles Gherson).

The three organizations are now working on a larger package of support for research which they hope to release by the end of October.