Mixed reactions to new research excellence fund

Starting in 2015, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund is to provide C$1.5 billion (US$1.4 billion) over a decade to support university research that contributes to the country’s long-term economic competitiveness.

About C$37 million annually will go to four granting councils, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, with money flowing to targeted areas like physics and quantum computing research and the automotive sector, as well as C$9 million for indirect costs on an ongoing basis.

The federal government says it has now increased funding for research and innovation each year since 2006.

In the budget speech, the government said: “This fund will support the strategic research priorities of Canada’s post-secondary institutions and help them excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada.

“This will result in the largest annual increase in funding for research through the granting councils in more than a decade.”

The new federal budget also highlights job training, including expansion of the state’s student loan programme to support apprenticeships.

Mixed responses

The news has been received with scepticism in some quarters.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, or CAUT, described it as merely “dressing up a modest budget” in higher education, and said that with a 10-year timeline, the money for the new fund would come mostly from the budgets of future governments.

“We are disappointed that new money for the major federal funding agencies barely keeps up with inflation, which the government tries to hide amid dazzling promises totalling more than C$1 billion for years long after the next election,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT.

“The good news is none of this year’s new money for the funding agencies is targeted, unlike in past budgets.”

He was referring to the controversial CERC – Canada Excellence Research Chairs – programme, introduced in 2008. Aimed at “attracting the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”, the project had an equally lukewarm reception.

The C$10 million award per chair over seven years was to be rolled into universities’ base budgets at the end of that period, and focused only on four pre-selected priority areas: environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies.

“While the money for this year and next is modest, the government clearly feels a need to appear to be committed to science,” added Turk. “This is a tribute to public pressure over the past year that has stressed the importance of science and research.”

Last year his group started a public effort to urge change in science policy, including the government’s push for more applied research.

On the other hand, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada welcomed the Excellence Fund, praising “the government’s recognition of university research as a significant driver of prosperity”.

“This is a pivotal moment for research excellence and innovation in Canada,” said Dr David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba and chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. He said the budget contained a series of investments in advanced research and innovation that were “far-sighted and strategic”.

Canada’s university researchers are at the peak of their careers, he added, with more than 50% of university faculty having been hired in the past 10 years. Graduate student enrolment has increased by almost 90% since 2000.

Glen Jones

Professor Glen Jones, Ontario research chair in postsecondary education policy and measurement at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, said the central theme of the recent federal budget was restraint.

“The fact that university research was one of the very few areas that involved increased expenditures is certainly good news for Canadian higher education,” he told University World News.

“The budget included a number of important, positive steps related to research, including increasing the budgets of the three research granting councils.”

Jones said the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund represented a major contribution to research. “But at this point there are relatively few details on this initiative. The budget announced a single year contribution and a large multi-year commitment, but my understanding is that the specific details of the fund will be announced at a later time.

“While the fact that the fund was announced is clearly a strong signal of the importance it places on research and development, many of us are obviously waiting for more detailed information on how funds will be used and allocated.

“This is clearly a major investment in research.”