Science Under Threat — Researchers Richard Peltier, Ryan McKay & Marjorie Griffin Cohen tell CAUT Council delegates about the impact of cuts to research funding.
Three of Canada’s top researchers spoke about the devastating impact of federal funding cuts to university research at CAUT’s council meeting in April.
University of Toronto physics professor and climate scientist Richard Peltier said he was particularly troubled by the government not renewing funding to research areas that have been productive and successful.
“This cuts right to the heart of many of the projects which Canada has been actually leading in,” he said. “We shouldn’t cut the things we do best.”
As examples, he pointed to streams of funding that have been removed for Genome Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS), the main funding body for university-based research on climate and related environmental work in Canada.
CFCAS funds targeted research, but, as Peltier explained, the funds are distributed through a “hands-off, peer reviewed” process. Critically, he said, more than half of that funding went into supporting qualified researchers.
While the increased funds in the 2009 federal budget for research infrastructure are important, Peltier said, investing in the human infrastructure to go with it is critical and that money was cut.
“It’s a people business,” he said, adding that Canada’s failure to fund human infrastructure is especially ill-conceived in the context of burgeoning support for science by the Obama administration.
“Young, active, effective research scientists are highly mobile people,” Peltier said. “It takes time to build up groups of the caliber that we’ve built up … and just a short time to lose them.”
He said he’s not surprised by the government’s decision to cut funding, given its lack of support for the climate file, and its earlier decision to eliminate the position of science advisor.
“These ill-advised decisions are almost inevitable in the current political structure in which science has no place at the table at which decisions are made,” he said.
University of Alberta researcher Ryan McKay agreed, saying that restoring the position of science advisor is especially important at a time when researchers themselves are being described as biased in the debate over funding, adding that he was troubled by a newspaper article saying researchers were “complaining” about “a glass 7/8 full.”
“We’re getting money for the glass, but we are not getting money for the water,” he said.
His own facility, the National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre, is struggling to survive. Since opening in 1999, the centre had received every grant it had applied for through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
But in 2008, CIHR cancelled its multi-user facilities grants, and this year, the Alberta government disbanded another source of funding — the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. To make things worse, McKay said, NSERC faces a “bleak outlook.”
“There are simply no grants left to apply for. We’re basically holding on by our fingernails and we’re running out of fingernails,” he said, adding that the centre has been forced to lay off staff and raise user fees for its equipment.
“Infrastructure without associated operational funding is wasteful,” McKay said, citing the example of the Institute for Biomolecular Design, where equipment sat wrapped in plastic for months because operational grants weren’t available.
McKay also shared Peltier’s concerns about the government’s attempt to steer research.
The drive for commercialization wants quick results, but a longer-term vision is essential, he said.
“We have to have in science an outlook that is not just a year down the line, or five years down the line … some research doesn’t reach fruition as far as productivity and commercialization for 10, 20, or even 50 years. Basic research is the foundation — the basis of which we can stand on, and then leap for the great discoveries. If your foundation crumbles beneath you, you’ll fall and get nothing.”
He said that researchers are partly to blame, because they saw the push to directed research coming, but “hoped the pendulum wouldn’t swing any further.”
Administrations didn’t stand up either, he said, adding that the big question now is whether university presidents will push back.
Politicians, meanwhile, have chosen the easy route with investments in research infrastructure that provide for photo opportunities and defined and clear results.
Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a political scientist from Simon Fraser University, spoke about the impact of research funding cuts on the social sciences and humanities — what she called “the poor cousin in academia.”
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council receives about 14 per cent of the total federal funding that goes to Canada’s three granting councils. And yet, Cohen said, SSHRC covers areas that account for 56 per cent of the total graduate students in universities and 54 per cent of the total faculties in universities.
SSHRC gets only $17.5 million in new temporary funding for graduate scholarships — half of what each of the other two granting councils are receiving — despite having 60 per cent of total graduate students.
To make matters worse, Cohen said, the allocation is for master’s and doctoral scholarships “focused on business-related degrees.”
And initial cuts to SSHRC of $8.2 million, she said, may not sound like much, but will have a huge impact.
“Basically it means the elimination of all funding for research time stipends for academic researchers,” she said. “No future SSHRC grants will provide funding to allow faculty to reduce their teaching load in order to carry out research, no matter how big the research team or how big the project.”
She said while SSHRC puts on a “brave face” by pointing to the obligation on university administrations to ensure faculty have adequate research time, “this just isn’t happening because they are dealing with their own financial crises.”
Cohen recounted that at her own university all part-time appointments in the faculty of arts and social sciences have been suspended, leaving full-time faculty to assume all of the teaching. They have also been mandated to significantly increase class sizes.
“The notion that my faculty — the social sciences and humanities faculty — will be able to fund research release time is incredible in the literal sense. That is not to be believed … they will not because they cannot,” Cohen said.