Thursday, January 29, 2009

Research Funding Worries in Canada

On Tuesday, January 27th, the Harper government brought down its long-awaited budget. The Liberals indicated their support, so the coalition is dead and the Harper government alive.

One of the most worrying features of this government has been its antipathy to intellectuals and artists. As for the latter, Harper traduced artists in the last election campaign as citified types who go to a lot of cocktail parties -- and lost a lot of seats in arts-loving Quebec as a result. As far as this is concerned, the Government may have learned its lesson: 160 million is in the works for big arts festivals (and the attendant cocktail parties in big cities, one imagines). Well, good -- but it's a pity that struggling avant-garde artists won't benefit from this.

With respect to universities, the Harper record hasn't been bad. At least up until now. Paul Martin, the former Prime Minister, was a staunch believer in universities (though not necessarily a supporter of pure research in humanities) and under him, the three federal research granting councils had strong budget increases, peaking (under Harper) at around 2 billion dollars per year. This, together with such programs as the Canada Research Chairs and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, has brought considerable excitement to Canadian universities
in recent years. There's a palpable feeling of things happening.

In this week's budget, however, the news for research was quite bad. Today (January 29, 2009) the Globe and Mail reported on its front page that Genome Canada's funding from the feds had dropped to zero. This is a high-profile and high-prestige agency, and is very visible in cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, which have large medical research establishments. In the 2008 budget, Genome Canada received an increase of 140 million. Today, it's gone from the budget altogether. This seems bizarre. A 100% cut! (UPDATE: Colin Farrely points out that this story is based on a misinterpretation of how the Government funds Genome Canada. It does so by means of one-time grants, not by on-going base funding. In the last two years, Genome Canada got grants of $100m and 140m. These grants can be drawn on any time over the subsequent four years, and are still current. However, no new money came in this year. So things are not as bad as the Globe story suggested, but still quite a bit worse than last year, since GC can't make new commitments.)

At the same time, the budgets of the three granting councils drops by 87 million -- or about 3%. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's budget is cut by 14 million (also in the 3% range). Compounded by a stupid recent emphasis on directed research at SSHRC, and a consequent internal reallocation of funds away from independent research, this could be a very bad development for humanists. (Again, this is a reversal. Last year, the government proposed an 80 million increase in each of two years.)

The news was not all bad though. This is a stimulus budget, and public works are the theme. As part of that theme, colleges and universities are to receive about 2 billion dollars for infrastructure renewal, which must be matched by the provinces. Many Canadian universities suffer (as do universities everywhere) from deferred spending on maintenance, and this should help. There are also some increases to the Canada Graduate Scholarship funds and Canada Foundation for Innovation (which is a source of research infrastructure funding, mainly for scientists).

What's the trend? I don't know, but there is cause for worry. Especially for humanists.

UPDATE: Further evidence now emerges of an anti-intellectual approach to "training". Lisa Shapiro kindly referred me to the Canadian Association of University Teachers analysis of the budget. There it is pointed out that some money has been redirected from granting council base budgets to the Canada Graduate Scholarship program. However, the new money that goes to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for these scholarships will be restricted to students in business related programs!

Another, more positive note: The Government will contribute $50 million to the Institute of Quantum Computing in Waterloo, presumably matching the contribution of Jim Balsillie of Blackberry fame.