The Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council & the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, among other agencies, will feel the sting of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s austerity measures, unveiled in the March 29 budget. [Blair Gable/Reuters]
The federal Conservatives recent budget gives priority to research focused on business needs while cutting future funding for the granting councils and key government agencies vital to the academic community.
“With Budget 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government turns away from the kind of research that leads to new discoveries in favour of a narrow and short-term commercial agenda,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “By linking research to business interests, the government will stiﬂe rather than promote growth and scientific advancement.”
The three granting councils are being asked to find savings of $37 million from “low priority” areas this year. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) savings will be “reinvested” in programs designed to support academic-industry partnerships.
In addition, NSERC and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will be scaled back by $30 million over each of the following two years, while SSHRC’s budget will be reduced by $14 million each year.
Adjusted for inflation, base budgets of the granting councils have steadily eroded over the past five years. Between 2007–2008 and 2011–2012, funding for SSHRC will have declined by over 10 per cent in real terms. NSERC’s funding is down a more modest 1.2 per cent, while core support for CIHR will have declined by 4.1 per cent.
The budget also imposes a dramatic restructuring of the National Research Council. The NRC’s basic research program will be effectively eliminated, and the agency will be “realigned” to meet business needs. As part of this process, the NRC will receive $67 million in 2012–2013 to support the “refocusing on business-led, industry-relevant research.”
“Tying research increasingly to commercial interests, as this budget does, will hinder real innovation,” Turk said. “The government ignores the fact that most fundamental advances in knowledge leading to innovative applications come from basic research guided by scientists, not political or commercial interests.”
Already reeling from cuts to its services and traditional mission, Library and Archives Canada is facing a $9.6 million reduction in funding over three years. Statistics Canada’s budget will be reduced by nearly $34 million on an ongoing basis by 2014. The First Nations Statistical Council, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and the National Welfare Council were told their funding would be eliminated.
Turk says one piece of good news is that Ottawa did not cut education transfer payments to the provinces, but notes the sums remain too low to cover inflation and enrolment increases at universities and colleges.
“As recently as 1990 public funding made up 80 per cent of total university operating revenues,” he said. “Today, that has dropped to about 50 per cent, with a greater financial cost shifted onto students and their families.
“There is nothing in this budget to help students struggling with high fees and debt, to allow universities and colleges to expand student spaces and hire more teachers, or to permit researchers to conduct fundamental and ground-breaking work.”
Saddling students with more financial burdens, combined with the budget’s announcement of cuts to social programs such as Old Age Security, will only lead to greater intergenerational inequality, Turk noted, adding “the deep cuts to public sector spending threaten to stall economic recovery and jeopardize future development. You can’t cut your way to prosperity.”