The federal government has created a Canada Research Chairs Program and has set aside $900 million to establish 2,000 research chairs over the next five years.
In itself, providing funding for faculty positions is good news. How can we not be in favour of it? The number of faculty positions across Canada has dwindled by 10 per cent in the last decade. We are in serious competition with our neighbors to the south for the large number of new faculty which will be needed over the next decade as the number of students increases.
The federal intentions are to put Canada on the global research map: "to become a world-leading knowledge-based economy, capable of creating next-generation ideas and putting them to work to guarantee jobs, growth, wealth and improved quality of life." The government wants to "offset brain drain pressures for global research stars."
But what this infusion of "stars" into our universities will mean for the future of higher education has not been taken into account.
As originally conceived, the research chairs program was to relieve the "stars" from teaching duties, yoking them to their laboratories to produce all sorts of marketable ideas. The bureaucrats were ignorant of the fact that teaching and research go hand in hand, and that universities in Canada expect their faculty to be actively engaged in both research and teaching.
The plan is to create 1,000 seven-year renewable Tier 1 chairs to attract current research stars, initially to allow universities to retain their own stars, and later to attract global stars. For each of these stars, universities will receive $200,000 per year.
There will also be 1,000 five-year Tier 2 chairs, renewable once, to attract rising and future research stars. For each of these, universities will receive $100,000 per year.
At this rate, the funding presently set aside will last for only three years. Who will take up the slack in funding is uncertain.
And what of infrastructure support for these chairs? This extremely important aspect of research funding was also forgotten by the federal bureaucrats in their original conception of the program, so a way had to be found to supply some of the needed infrastructure.
Enter the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). Universities will now "have the opportunity to include a request for infrastructure support from the CFI" in the sum of $125,000 per chair.
The catch is that the CFI criteria and matching requirements will apply. The CFI criteria require that for every 40 cents on the dollar which is supplied by the federal government, 60 cents must be found either from private sector corporate partners or from the university's own budget. If this is applied to the research chairs program, the federal government will have to supply only $50,000 per chair in infrastructure support.
Another flaw in the program has to do with the allocation of the "star" chairs across Canada's universities.
Everyone could agree with the proposition that we need to build and develop research capacity in our universities, but this new program does nothing to broaden the base of research capacity. It is conservative and stuck in the past.
The allocation will be based on research grants received in the past from the three federal granting councils (MRC, NSERC and SSHRC), on a three-year rolling average.
For the 2000-01 allocation the years in question are 1995/96, 1996/ 97 and 1997/98 as reported by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO).
Only 6 per cent of the chairs, i.e., 120, will be allocated to the smaller universities: those receiving less than 1 per cent in total granting council funding.
Ninety-four per cent, or 1,880 chairs, will be allocated to those with more than 1 per cent in total council funding.
Of the chairs to be awarded each year, 35 per cent will be allocated to the health sciences (MRC), 45 per cent to the natural sciences and engineering (NSERC), and only 20 per cent to social sciences and the humanities (SSHRC).
Instead of building research capacity broadly across Canada, the program rewards those universities which, in the past, have already demonstrated that capacity.
In the first year alone, about 58 per cent of the chairs will go to eight universities (Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta, Montreal, McMaster, Laval and Calgary).
The CAUBO data regarding research council support in the past should be taken into account in allocating chairs, but other factors should be counted as well, such as the number of doctoral students being supported by universities, and the future plans that universities would make for developing their research programs if federal funding were to become available.
Furthermore, we can expect, once the program is underway, that federal funding for MRC, NSERC and SSHRC will continue to decline in the future. The new "star" system will draw funding away from the average faculty member.
And there is nothing to guarantee that a given university can keep its chairs once the federal money has run out. It will have already committed a substantial portion of its future operating budget to maintaining its chairs and may have to rob other programs in order to preserve them.
One has only to remember the corporate donor agreements made at the University of Toronto in which the university promised to make the preservation of the matching-fund chairs an absolute priority in its future budget allocations.
In this way the Canada Research Chairs Program could have a dramatic steering effect inside the very universities which are most successful in gaining chairs.
The entire teaching/research programs of the university would be profoundly affected. And the smaller and less successful institutions could find their status relegated de facto to teaching only.
"Stars" who were isolated in such places would also be prime targets for poaching by the larger institutions with more star appeal.
In creating its Canada Research Chairs Program the federal government may be setting up its own made-in-Canada "Star Wars" program.
Bill Graham is past president of CAUT.
Program information is available from the CAUT research department and at www.sshrc.ca/english/programinfo/chairs_program.html