Awarding of research chairs ‘brain coup’ or brain cramp?

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Government shows disturbing lack of vision by its narrow focus on just four areas
Published On Tue May 25 2010.  Penni Stewart, President, Canadian Association of University Teachers

Last week’s awarding of 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) hasn’t eased the concerns of many in Canada’s research community about the Harper government’s commitment to science.

In fact, it may have reopened some old wounds.

Trumpeted by Industry Minister Tony Clement as a “brain coup” for Canada, the CERC program is cold comfort for Canada’s home-grown brains who work in our colleges and universities.

Many of them have been struggling with rollbacks imposed by cash-strapped administrations, and dwindling funding from a seemingly indifferent federal government.

This year’s federal budget provided only a modest increase for Canada’s research granting councils, hardly equal to inflation and certainly not enough to offset the nearly $148 million in cuts announced last year.

As a result, labs are being shut, important research projects are being shelved, and some are looking at a future outside of Canada.

That context helps explain why many researchers are shaking their heads in disbelief as universities lucky enough to scoop a CERC chair now say they’re on the hook to cover significant new costs associated with the program.

Dalhousie University, for example, says it will need to find $24 million over seven years to support the newly appointed CERC in ocean science and technology — more than double the $10 million the federal government is providing.

The University of Saskatchewan has to put up $10 million of its money to help pay for its CERC in water security, with the province providing a matching sum. Notably, the provincial contribution comes at the same time it is slashing funding for health researchers through the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

Others have rightly expressed outrage that not one of the chairs awarded went to a woman. We’ve been down this road before with the Canada Research Chairs program. The gender imbalance in that initiative led to a much publicized human rights complaint, supported by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Long negotiations led to an apparent settlement in which Ottawa agreed to live up to its obligations to ensure gender balance in its programs. With not one woman among the 19 chairholders, CERC clearly flies in the face of that settlement.

And then there’s the relatively narrow focus of the CERC program. The chairs have been awarded in four priority areas identified by the Harper government: the environment, natural resources and energy, health sciences, and information and communication technologies.

While these are clearly important fields of study, there has been and remains a real danger in governments trying to steer scientific research. The history of scientific progress has demonstrated time and again that decisions about what should be investigated are best left to scientists, not governments or politicians.

The focus on four priority areas not only excludes the majority of researchers in the natural sciences, it also effectively shuts out all of Canada’s researchers and graduate students who conduct their work in the social sciences and humanities.

Canada faces many pressing social and economic challenges, such as child poverty, social exclusion, and sustainable economic development. Apparently these topics are not worthy of support in the Harper research agenda.

Overall, the CERC program highlights a disturbing lack of vision for scientific research in Canada. The Harper government’s CERC program, coming in the wake of cuts to basic research funding, is akin to building a new addition onto a crumbling building. It does nothing to address the fundamental structural problems that continue to plague Canada’s universities and colleges.

Canadian science will best prosper when universities and colleges are more adequately funded, when basic research funding provided through the granting councils is sufficient to fund projects of scientific merit across all disciplines, and when what should be funded is based on the judgement of the scientific community.

Derek Burney, head of the CERC program’s selection board, said recruiting the 19 chairs was a bit like a hockey team fiercely vying with other teams to sign a coveted star player. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, surely Burney recognizes that it’s not the team with the biggest star that wins in the long run, but the team that develops the best farm system and nurtures its own talent pool.

Sadly, this is one hockey lesson lost on the Harper government.

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