CAUT executive director James Turk on Parliament Hill March 3 to meet MPs Marc Garneau, Jack Layton & Mike Savage over the 2009 federal budget that shortchanges research.
CAUT continues to voice concerns over the Conservative government’s underfunding of research provided through the granting councils, and the targeting of specific projects.
A furor erupted within the scientific community following the release of the federal budget in January. The Conservatives pledged $2 billion over the next two years for university and college infrastructure, with additional money provided to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But it was also announced that research program funding provided through the three granting agencies will be cut by $148 million over the next three years.
That left many researchers shaking their heads in disbelief.
“Investments in bricks and mortar are important, but it makes no sense at all to build facilities and provide equipment but not give researchers the funding they need to do their work,” says CAUT executive director James Turk.
Important programs are being eliminated because of the cuts. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council announced it will be ending the Research Time Stipends program which helped fund course release time for researchers, and will chop $5.6 million from health-related research.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council is eliminating the Centres for Research in Youth, Science Teaching and Learning, University Faculty Awards, the Research Capacity Development program, the Special Research Opportunity program and the Intellectual Property Mobilization program. In addition, NSERC is limiting its postgraduate scholarships award to one year and tightening restrictions on projects funded under the Major Resources Support program.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is ending its Intellectual Property Mobilization program and the Open Team Grant Program.
Gordon Keller, head of the University of Toronto’s McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine and a recipient of a CIHR team grant, says researchers can’t afford to lose these programs.
“These are very important programs because it allows groups of investigators to come together to address a common question,” he said in an interview with the Globe and Mail.
Others have warned that the absence of any new commitments means funding is about to run out for a range of facilities and agencies, including the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Lab and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. No new funding for Genome Canada, the agency that supports large-scale science, means some scientists could run out of money by the end of this year.
“I think we’re seeing very clearly that the government just doesn’t understand the value of basic research,” CAUT’s Turk says. “I’m afraid we’re in real danger of losing many of our researchers, particularly when you have the Obama administration set to pump $18 billion into research in the United States.”
Turk says it’s vital that Canada take action to close the research funding gap with the U.S. by providing, on a proportional basis, a boost to the granting councils equivalent to that being provided to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
“That would translate into an additional $1 billion over the next two to three years,” he noted.
For many in the scientific community, it’s not just inadequate funding for basic research that’s the problem. It’s also that the Conservatives are increasingly stipulating which research gets funded.
The 2009 budget, Turk points out, provides $87.5 million for new Canada Graduate Scholarships over the next three years, but specifies that “scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.” The budget also stipulates that the bulk of infrastructure money given to the Canada Foundation for Innovation is for future priority projects identified by the Minister of Industry (albeit in “consultation” with the foundation). And, instead of allowing the peer-review process to determine which research centres are funded, the budget allocates $50 million to the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo for a new research facility “that will contribute to achieving the goals of the Government’s science and technology strategy.”
“We run the real risk of steering science into the abyss and of politicizing science when governments start micromanaging research,” warns Turk. “Decisions about the merits of scientific research are best left to scientists, not governments or politicians.”
In a open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued in February, CAUT called on the government to “ensure that programs and scholarships funded by the granting agencies are not restricted to specific fields and are judged on the basis of merit by the scientific community,” and that “infrastructure projects funding provided through the CFI or through the university and college infrastructure initiative are similarly judged on the basis of their scientific merit by the research community.”
In late February, CAUT met with Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, hoping to raise these concerns directly with the government.
But the meeting turned sour almost from the beginning, according to CAUT associate executive director David Robinson.
“From the very start, the minister was combative and unwilling to listen,” said Robinson. “It was one of the most unprofessional encounters I’ve had in my 15 years of dealing with government.”
He said Goodyear and his policy advisor were uninterested in discussing the issues or in answering questions, and instead accused CAUT of lying about the measures in the budget.
“I asked the minister to point out any mistakes or errors in what we said, but instead he simply kept accusing us of misleading the research community,” Robinson said. “Then his policy advisor told us to shut up, and then he and the minister stormed out of the room warning that we’ve burned all our bridges with them.”
Robinson adds that he’s not so much worried about how he and colleague Michael Conlon were treated during the meeting, as he is about what it signals about the government’s attitude toward the scientific research community.
“Telling a major constituency group to shut up and that you’re not interested in their opinions is not just bad manners, it’s bad politics too.