I see from this CTV story that Federal Budget Trial Balloon Leaking Season has begun. This is the time of year when Liberals decide they would like to get applause for a decision more than once, and so they pre-announce various bits of the budget so they can have good news spread over more than just budget day (the Tories, whatever you think about the news management policies generally, tended to be much more fastidious about budget secrecy). And the first leak out of the gate happens to be with respect to everyone’s favourite subject, The Review of Fundamental Science, aka the Naylor Report.
It’s important to parse these trial balloons for clues, so let’s do some forensic analysis on the CTV piece. There are two key sentences, I think. One reads “Government sources suggest the budget is unlikely to include a point-by-point endorsement of the Naylor report, but it is expected to contain a major increase for granting councils as well as significant investments in science, in general”. And the other, based on an anonymous source, states the commitments are likely to be organized in the budget based on scientific theme, rather than the model in the Naylor report.
So here’s what I think we can take from this. First, the feds are planning to put more money into the tri-councils, but not the full $1.3 billion over four years that Naylor asked for and for which the #supportthereport folks have been clamouring these past few months. That’s fine: it’s not clear to me that anyone ever believed it was $1.3 Billion or Bust. And it’s not as though this is the only year the councils’ budgets can get a bump. There’s still the (pre-election) 2019 Budget, which is where many people think the real money is going to be anyway.
But there’s a second and more worrying point here. “A major increase for granting councils AND (emphasis added) significant investments in science in general” (emphasis added); “commitments in the budget…based on scientific theme rather than (the Naylor model)”. There are a number of ways one could interpret these two sentences – it could mean more money to government science or to the National Research Council, for instance – but I think there is a non-trivial chance that this is federal government code for “we are going to more or less ignore the Review’s recommendations with respect to getting out of the niche science funding business and fully intend to keep spending money on one-off boutique science initiatives because hey that’s good politics.”
Some advice for my friends (I think I have a few) in government. Don’t do this. Please, don’t do this.
I get it, you’re not crazy about the tri-councils. Government doesn’t get “credit” for council spending even when ministers do ludicrous photo ops on campuses “announcing” said spending, and councils never of their own accord seem to put together “big push” efforts to give Canadian science “leadership” status in emerging hot fields of study. But understand this: scientists do not care about any of that, because – listen carefully guys – THAT’S NOT THE WAY SCIENCE WORKS.
I know this is difficult for people in government to believe (especially for the Innovation Minister, who has read a few issues of the MIT Technology Review and therefore thinks he understands the science/innovation nexus), but leadership in science – to the extent that means anything at the national level – is not something that is born of government fiat. To reiterate something Yoshua Bengio said a few months ago about his own field of AI: to the extent Canada has any leadership in this field, it’s because in the 1980s we had a tri-council system that funded curiosity-driven research into some very queer and not-at-all fashionable areas. It was not because anyone in Ottawa, gifted with magical foresight about scientific progress, knew AI would be hot thirty years down the line and funded accordingly.
So here’s my main advice to the federal government: If the choice is between, say, spending $1.5B over 4 years with half of it going to boutique science, consider spending $1B but dumping the whole amount on the councils instead. The bang for the buck will be higher, and I guarantee you the scientific community will be just as happy, if not more (university Presidents may not, but there’s only 90 of them, so politically not much of a loss).
And if you could somehow make the Common CV work and get CIHR to reverse its disastrous policies around increasing concentration of funding – neither of which would cost much in the grand scheme of things – you’d have votes for life. Trust me.
(I have a secondary piece of advice, which is “don’t release the budget, as rumoured, on Feb. 27”. If you make me miss Toronto FC’s home opener I shall be properly vexed and not responsible for the torrent of bitchy sarcasm I will unleash on you in HESA’s annual budget commentary.)