HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Meaning of Zero

I’ve had a lot of time over the past week to think about the federal budget. And the more I think about it, the more baffled I am about the decision to completely stuff the granting councils. I think it is either a sign of real political ineptness, or that something pretty awful is in the pipeline.

It’s not as though the Liberals are averse to spending on Science, per se. The budget dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on Artificial Intelligence, Cleantech, Superclusters, what have you. And it’s not as though they have a problem with that money going to college and universities: the AI money was clearly headed to McGill, Toronto and Alberta, winning supercluster applications are going to need universities as partners (in a rational world they should all have also polytechnics/colleges to provide technical skills training as well, but I’m not totally convinced Industry Canada understands this yet).

So why not the granting councils?

Yeah, yeah, don’t say it: the Naylor Report. Because they are waiting for the Naylor Report (which has mysteriously disappeared) and they don’t want to spend any money until it’s out because there might be a big shake-up.

(Related note: the Science Minister, Kristy Duncan, was on my Ottawa-Toronto flight this week. I asked her when the Naylor Report would be published. She said read page 88 of the budget [which says the report will be released “in the coming months]. I asked what was taking so long. She said they had just had so many consultations, it took time to read them all. I said yeah, but Naylor submitted the report on time in December, right? She said – and I quote – “well, that’s a position”. Make of this what you will, but for me at least it did not dispel the impression that games are being played.)

The problem with this thesis is that imminent future program change wasn’t a barrier to spending in some other program areas. Youth Employment Services and the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, both got very significant increases in their budgets despite the fact that the budget indicated that both would be subject to change in the near future. In those cases, the budget was written so as to show a budget bump for two years and two years only, to indicate that the government didn’t think the old structures would still be around.

So why did the government push for temporary budget boosts in other areas but not the councils? I am not sure, but I don’t see a credible answer that says “once Naylor is published the taps will flow”. I think a more likely answer is this: maybe this government doesn’t actually like granting councils as a policy tool any more than the last one did. No, there’s no “war on science” – though frankly, if it were a Conservative government that had hidden the Naylor Report and given the councils 0%, I’m pretty sure we’d be hearing that phrase 24/7.   

But I think it’s dawning on people that federal disenchantment with granting councils is not a partisan thing. The Chretien/Martin government may eventually have been good to councils (1995 budget excepted), but they also set up and funded a whole bunch of different science agencies (Brain Canada, Genome Canada, etc) precisely because they thought they knew better than the councils where science money should be spent. The Harper government wasn’t much into creating new agencies, yet was pretty consistent in funding big science projects every year outside the council structure.

One last piece of data: Universities Canada couldn’t even muster up a word on the councils’ behalf on budget night – it was all “yay MITACS and yay future Naylor report”. Seriously, their press release was embarrassing. Possibly someone in government leaned on them to give positive publicity “or else” (this has been known to happen), but possibly also that in the grand scheme of things, as long as money is coming in via clusters or AI or whatever, university administrations don’t give two hoots about the councils either. And if they don’t, why would the government?

From all of this I draw two conclusions.

One, even if the Naylor Report does result in more money for Science (and I’m not sure we can take that for granted), it’s not obvious that the councils will be the recipients of the money. The belief in Ottawa that granting councils “don’t get the job done” is deep; there is a bipartisan consensus that politicians and senior public servants, collectively, can manage the science enterprise better than scientists.

Two, Universities Canada is apparently deeply comfortable with this situation, even if not all its members are. For there to be a change in policy direction, someone is going to need to challenge the prevailing science discourse directly in Ottawa. And if it Universities Canada isn’t going to do it, it will have to be done by scientists themselves organizing and representing themselves independently in Ottawa. Sure, CAUT claims to do this, but ask a random sample of active scientists if they think this is the right vehicle for Science representation and you’d probably struggle to get into double-digits. Scientists themselves have to organize this fight, and quickly.

Three, it’s possible I’m entirely mistaken about this. Maybe the government just goofed in its messaging and there really is a pot of gold at the end of the Naylor rainbow, and Universities Canada’s behind-the-scenes work (of which I assume there is a great deal) will pay off handsomely. But honestly, at this point: would you bet on that?

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