1997 Ontario Budget
While the promotion of research and development in Ontario should be encouraged, the R&D Challenge Fund announced by the Ontario government in the May 6 budget is an inappropriate use of public funds. It confuses two public objectives: the need to increase private sector investment in research and development with the need for increased funding support for university research. In fact, the program as announced by the government, threatens to drain funds from the universities to subsidize private sector research and development.
The program requires that over the ten-year span of the project, universities end up putting in twice as much money as the government. According to the proposed formula, the universities’ share could be as much as $172 million in the last year of the program. This sum is greater than the combined current operating grants of Brock, Lakehead, Laurentian, Nipissing, Ryerson and Trent universities.
Over the life of the program, the universities are expected to spend $1 billion. This despite the fact that universities have had their budgets cut by 16 per cent in 1996-97 (three times the average cut to municipal services, hospitals and elementary and secondary schools). The only way that universities can find the money is by diverting expenditures from current research and teaching to the Challenge Fund. Who then will conduct the basic research upon which applied research depends?
The mission of universities is to provide post-secondary education at the highest level to all citizens who are academically qualified. Excellence in post-secondary teaching requires active engagement in research, typically basic discovery research. Basic research necessary to sustain teaching also has critically important spin-off advantages for the economy. Under the government’s R&D Challenge Fund, however, the primacy of the teaching mission sustained by basic research is suddenly being overtaken by an applied research model designed exclusively in the interest of private for-profit commercial concerns.
In announcing the R&D Challenge Fund, the Finance Minister stated that its purpose is "to help the private sector take advantage of our world-class research capabilities in universities and other research institutions..." The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations would support such an objective.
However, this cannot come at the expense of the government supporting the research proposals of its own Advisory Panel Report on the Future of Post-secondary Education. Just a few months ago the government’s panel released a report which called for increased funding support for university research infrastructure and underscored the need for a provincial research policy on basic and applied research in the public and private research sectors. More significantly, the panel called for the government to fund universities properly, at least to the national average per capita, in order to allow the universities to continue providing the type of educational opportunities and research critical to the prosperity of the province. The Conservative budget indicates, however, that the government has little intention of implementing the panel’s recommendations.
Universities are not the research and development labs of private companies. They are educational institutions. Unfortunately the government appears to believe that university research which does not have immediate or specific commercial application is of limited value. By implementing this program, the government is distorting the roles of basic research and places at risk the primacy of classroom teaching at our universities.
Michael J. Piva is President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. Dr. Piva is ending his second term as president on June 30 and will remain active on the Board as past-president.