A couple of months ago, I read a rather interesting book called National Innovation Systems and the Academic Enterprise, which is a collection of essays edited by David Dill and Frans van Vught. It’s a collection of essays about national – and in the case of the US, subnational – innovation policies, and while the quality of the national essays is a bit uneven (the Canadian one was marked mainly by overuse of the word “neoliberalism” and excessive off-point moaning about how SSHRC is hard done by compared to the other granting councils) it did make me really think about one significant concept which I hadn’t really thought about before: namely, science federalism.
Now we talk a lot about federalism in Canadian higher education. Usually, Canada is described as being provincial for core funding (properly, given section 93 of the Constitution Act), but “joint” federal-provincial jurisdiction for things like student aid and research funding. But this is correct in the sense that Science isn’t actually mentioned in either section 91 or 92 of the Constitution Act, so both sides can claim it if they want. But it’s incorrect in the sense that outside of Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta there’s very little if any sign of actual policy activity at all at the provincial level. So it’s a sometimes-shared and sometimes federal-only field.
One of the interesting themes of the book – or at least the bits that relate to the United States, where Pennsylvania and California each get a chapter – is how sub-national units have real trouble making science policy work. Basically, in the United States, the experience is that state-level science policy is mostly useless, primarily driven by short-term considerations and focussed on trying to use science to leverage private sector life-sector/tech investments (frankly, it sounds like a lot of mainstream national-level Science policy in Canada, but let that slide). Importantly, even in a state as large as California it is apparently very difficult for new science efforts to initiate meaningful peer review/evaluation because most professors choose to spend their peer review time with national agencies rather than (often temporary) state-level ones. Implication: leave organization and funding to a single level of government.
To some extent, the experience of Germany bears this implication out. Although theoretically there is co-operation between Länder and the federal government for research, over 99% of all public funding for research comes from Berlin. But it’s not clear that the Canadian experience demonstrates the same problems. The Fonds de Recherche du Quebec manages to co-exist reasonably well with the tri-councils in Ottawa. Ontario has managed to avoid duplicating federal science efforts by mainly focussing its efforts on the private sector.
The bigger problem with science federalism – which seems to be the case both here and in the US – is that both federal and provincial/state governments are trying to use universities to fulfill their own policy ends (research in one case, teaching in the other), but with little to no co-ordination between the two, or indeed with much control over institutions. The big problem here has come in hiring policies. During the aughts, hiring in the U.S. was driven by the wider availability of science funding more than student numbers. In Canada, almost the opposite occurred, when our big access jump during the aughts drove hiring profs who then expected research funding, which simply wasn’t increasing at a rate sufficient to support them all (constituting an important though partial explanation of the current research funding crisis).
But wait, you say. How come Germany hasn’t had similar problems to the United States? As federal research funding there ramped up over the past two decades, why didn’t universities there go on a spree, thus forcing states into higher spending on salaries and infrastructure too? A couple of reasons, I think. First, when Berlin decided to expand its funding, it made plans to do so in a long-term and predictable way. States and institutions weren’t left guessing from year to year what funding would look like, the way they are here; rather, they could plan around stable assumptions. Second, universities in Germany cannot hire without state government say-so: every single position needs to be approved by a state government, so there was no chance of an institution getting hooked on funding from one level of government and passing on externality costs to another.
In short, in federations, the governance of science and universities matters. With the right policies, as in Germany, the problems of co-ordination can be minimized. But in North America, where we mostly ignore these kinds of governance issues, significant costs and inefficiencies arise. More honesty about the challenges of science federalism would be helpful.