Higher Education Strategy Associates

Fundamental Choices on Fundamental Science

The federal government has been somewhat quiet on the subject of science funding since the release of the Fundamental Science Review (see previous blogs here here and here) back in April.  Within much of the scientific community, which for the most part fell head over heels in love with the Report, this has given cause for concern; personally, I think this is pretty much par for the course, and we aren’t likely to see much in the way of hints about the size of any possible investment until October or so.

The major good piece of news is that for the first time in a long time, economic growth is going way ahead of expectations and the likelihood is there’s going to be about $10 billion more in the fiscal framework than originally expected.  Now the likelihood is they’ll blow some of that on projects designed to keep Kathleen Wynne in power, some on daycare, and maybe a bit on deficit reduction just to show they haven’t totally forgotten their pledges around fiscal restraint, but there should be enough left in the till to put a decent amount of money towards science.

But the question is: will they?  And how fundamentally will they re-shape the system in the process?

To give you the research situation in a nutshell:  Apart from a brief blip in the 2016 budget, the overall granting council budget has been falling gently in real dollars since 2010.  The overall science budget has actually stayed steady or even increased, but a lot of that extra money is going to programs like the new Canada 150 Research Chairs, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, etc.  And within the granting council budgets, and increasing amount of money has been diverted away from fundamental research.  Some of it has gone to more graduate scholarships, but there has also been an increasing focus on making research more focussed on end-use, creating partnerships with industry (which has a similar effect), etc.  Add to the fact that some granting councils (notably CIHR, whose management decisions over the last decade appear to be the result of sustained cane toad licking) have started substantially reducing the number of awards they give out each year in order to increase the average size of their awards.

This has varied outcomes from a political point of view.  A large number of individual researchers in basic sciences, particularly biology and medicine, are livid.  A smaller number of researchers with more strength in translational and applied research are doing just fine, thank you very much.  And the universities, who are still by and larger getting the money they want, recognize that many of their employees are unhappy campers; however, since they continue to receive money either way, the status quo isn’t intolerable even if it isn’t ideal.

Now, into this steps David Naylor and his fellow commissioners with a report on how to fix it.  They ask for a whole lot of money: $1.3 billion in funding for fundamental research phased in over four years.   But – and here’s the tricky bit – how to pay for it?  Do you ask for completely 100% new money?  Because that’s a lot.  It’s something like a 30% increase, which not many programs get these days.  Or do you say: hey, let’s undo all those bad decisions of the past decade and dismantle CFREF, the Excellence Chairs and whatnot, rejig the council funding so less of their money goes to translational research, etc. (Nassif Ghoussoub outlines one possible approach along these lines here). Basically, spend the money we have better before asking for more dollars.

If it were me, I’d take option two.  But that would create winners and losers and governments hate that even if the winners in this case would be very loud and happy.  So Naylor and co. went with option one: ask for all money to be new.  Well, they actually did kind of say all that other money (CFREF, CERCs) was bunk because there were a lot of “this program should be reviewed but it’s out of our scope” comments (not sure it was actually, but leave that aside) but they very specifically avoided saying “lets repurpose some money.“  It’s a higher risk strategy, I think, because you need to ask for a larger sum of money, but on the plus side: no losers.

What will the outcome be?  If I had to guess, it’s that Naylor will mostly get his wish on funding because, fortuitously, money is available and they can probably get by without much re-purposing. But if that hadn’t been the case (and still may not be – still plenty of time for a Black Swan even between now and budget day), who knows what would have happened?  Because just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, you know there is literally no one in Ottawa willing to brief the politicians on the re-purposing option.

Which is too bad, because even with all the research money in the world, it’s still important to spend it properly.

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One Response to Fundamental Choices on Fundamental Science

  1. Jim Woodgett says:

    Rule #1 of funding asks, don’t offer sacrificial lambs when you are not sure whether the guy with the knife is going to give you back lamb chops or demand more lambs for his other family members. It’s also somewhat difficult for government to curtail those programs when they seem to have renewed them or re-packaged them (which is what has astounded many in science). As you note, there is plenty of language in the Naylor report that provides less fiscally painful paths to the same end. Pretty sure the phase-in over 4 years isn’t locked in stone and the 30% tricouncil increase over four years is approximately double the rate of inflation. I think the panel is surprised that their messaging wasn’t publicly embraced by Ottawa and must wonder whether their carefully parsed recommendations should have taken a more explicit tone.

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