Because universities lobby for science money, there is often a naïve assumption that the interests of scientists (academic ones, anyway) and those of universities are aligned. But they are not. In Canada, there is sometimes broad agreement about what to push for (the Canada Foundation for Innovation in the late 1990s was an example), but I would argue that today the interests of scientists and those of universities are about as far apart as they have been at any time in my adult life.
There are two major flashpoints in this fight. The first has to do with the changing characteristics of science in this country. Under the Harper Conservatives, there was an ever-increasing tendency for the granting councils to add increasing amounts of “applied” elements to basic research funding. I wrote about this yesterday so I won’t belabour the point, except to say this: the main university lobbies – Universities Canada and the U-15 – were very, very quiet about this drift. I can’t say they never raised the issue with government; my guess is that they did so behind closed doors. But they were never seen to put any public pressure on government on this file, presumably because they fretted about the Conservatives’ reaction to any public discourse that wasn’t uniformly positive. But that angered and alienated a lot of researchers.
The second flashpoint was the creation of Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). This was a new pool of research money presented in the 2014 budget, which was designed to give whacking huge loads of cash to individual research universities on a particular research theme. The first round of awards, which wrapped up just before the election, saw money go to five universities: $114 million to U of T for regenerative medicine, $66 million to UBC for quantum materials, $33 million to Sherbrooke for quantum science and quantum technologies, $37 million to Saskatchewan for Global Food Security, and $98 million to Laval for something called Sentinel North, which I can’t begin to explain, but sounds pretty cool (all figures are over 7 years).
Now, CFREF makes tons of sense from the point of view of individual universities. Getting a big hunk of cash for a single project is a great way to give a university an enhanced and more focused profile, and to find ways to leverage money from other sources. Basically, it’s a way of getting the federal government to act like a transformational donor.
But there are two big problems with CFREF; first, it’s new money for research at a time when the value of granting council dollars are slowly falling, and second, it’s desperately unclear that spending money this way makes any sense for the country as a whole. If you really thought it was important for the country to spend $66 million on quantum materials, is dropping all of it at one university likely to be the most productive way to use it? (Hint: no.) Researchers understand this problem, and are deeply annoyed that university presidents don’t seem to.
And so, I think, we have a recipe for a real struggle. An increasing number of academic scientists are coming to believe that university presidents do not represent their interests. But they have almost no means with which to get their opinion across in Ottawa. Neither CAUT nor the disciplinary federations have anything like the power and access of the U-15 or Universities Canada in the capital.
So what could happen? I am starting to think this fight may get played out on Senate floors across the country. Academics can’t defeat university presidents in Ottawa, but they can pass motions in Senate directing the university to, for instance, support money for granting councils over money for CFREF, or to turn up the volume on criticism of the applied research drift. It probably wouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 such motions at major universities to get Presidents scrambling to start a better internal dialogue about funding priorities.
That said, such exercises are hard to organize, and I kind of doubt anybody’s going to organize this in time to change the U-15 or Universities Canada pre-budget statements, which are already being drafted. But I do think there is trouble ahead, and Senates are the likeliest forum for this to play out. It could get ugly. Watch this space.