OK, federal political parties. I have some election manifesto advice for you. And given that you’ve all basically accepted Tory budget projections and promised not to raise taxes, it’s perfect. Completely budget neutral. Here it is:
Seriously. After 15 years of increasingly slapdash, haphazard policy-making in research and student aid, a Do Less agenda is exactly what we need.
Go back to 1997: we had three granting councils in Canada. Then we got the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. Then the Canadian Foundation for Sustainable Development Technology. Then Brain Canada, Genome Canada, Grand Challenges Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, The Canada First Research Excellence Fund – and that’s without mentioning the proliferation of single-issue funds created at SSHRC and NSERC. On commercialization, we’ve got a College and Community Innovation Program, a College-University Idea to Innovation Program, a dozen or so Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECRs) – plus, of course, the wholesale revamp of the National Research Council to turn it into a Canadian version of the Fraunhofer Institute.
It’s not that any of these initiatives are bad. The problem is that by spreading out money thinly to lots of new agencies and programs, we’re losing something in terms of coherence. Funding deadlines multiply, pools of available cash get smaller (even if overall budgets are more or less what they used to be), and – thanks to the government requirement that a large portion of new funding arrangements be leveraged somehow – the number of funders whose hands need to held (sorry, “whose accountability requirements need to be met”) is rising very fast. It all leaves less time to, you know, do the actual science – which is what all this funding is supposed to be about, isn’t it?
Or take student assistance. We know how much everyone (Liberals especially) loves new boutique student aid programs. But that’s exactly the wrong way to go. Everything we know about the $10 billion/year student aid business is that it’s far too complicated, and no one understands it. That’s why people in Ontario scream about affordability and accessibility when in fact the province is nearly as generous as Quebec when it comes to first-year low-income university students. For people to better appreciate what a bargain Canadian higher education is, we need to de-clutter the system and make it more transparent, not add more gewgaws.
So here’s the agenda: take a breather on new science and innovation programs; find out what we can do to make the system simpler for researchers; merge and eliminate programs as necessary (is Genome Canada really still worth keeping, or can we basically fold that back in to CIHR?) – while ensuring that total funds available do not diminish (a bump would be nice, too, but the simplification is more important).
As for student aid? Do a deal with the provinces to simplify need assessment and make it easier for students to know their likely aid eligibility much further in advance. Do a deal with provinces and institutions to convert tax credits into grants to institutions for a large one-time tuition reduction. Do not, under any circumstances, do anything to make the system more complex.
I know it goes against the grain, guys. I know you need “announceables” for the campaign. But in the long run, it’s more important to do things well. And to do that, we really need to start doing less.