Getting shovels into the ground and money into more brains

Posted on February 18, 2009 in Education Debates, Governance Debates – Opinions – Getting shovels into the ground and money into more brains
February 18, 2009.   JEFFREY SIMPSON

Some Canadian university researchers are up in arms, and their hero is coming to town.

U.S. President Barack Obama, arriving tomorrow in Ottawa, has signed a stimulus package that increases scientific research by $15-billion. In Canada, the Harper government just cut research funding in a budget that sprinkled money everywhere, including $2-billion for buildings on college and university campuses.

Predictably, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, a lobby group that has never seen enough money devoted to its interests, is angry, demanding Mr. Harper match pro rata Mr. Obama’s commitments. Spend another $500-million to $1-billion on scientific research, the CAUT urges.

University researchers are upset, as are university presidents who analyzed incorrectly the lay of the political land. They lobbied hard for buildings, figuring this government was preoccupied with “shovel ready” projects that would create jobs, attract attention and allow for ministers and Conservative MPs to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or at least send out self-congratulatory press releases.

They were right about this, but they assumed wrongly, as it turned out, that the Harper government would continue its past pattern – a pattern now conveniently forgotten in the little furor that followed the January budget – of increased research funding in every budget. As in, the 2008 budget boosted by $80-million a year funding for the three research-granting councils. As in, $500-million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation in the 2007 budget. As in, $100-million for Genome Canada in the 2007 budget and another $140-million in the 2008 budget.

The university presidents and others likely reckoned these sorts of increases would continue. Instead, the government is cutting money to the granting councils by almost $150-million in the next three years. Some of what one hand giveth (see budgets of 2007 and 2008), the other hand now taketh (see January budget).

It makes no sense, of course, except in the secretive world of something called “spending review,” a process the Harperites launched ostensibly, but not necessarily, to save money.

Each year, a group of departments and agencies is subjected to this review. In each budget, the money identified for saving is either booked as a “saving” or put into the “money reinvested” column.

This year, the language explaining the cuts was especially opaque bureaucratese. What do you think, for example, is meant by “aligning funding with actual needs and making better use of other programs with similar objectives”?

The good news is that the government will spend $1-billion a year this year and next on repairing buildings. The first rule of reading a federal budget is this: When a round number such as $1-billion appears, it means the government (a) picked the number from the air, (b) doesn’t know how or where the money will be spent, or (c) doesn’t have a process for making that decision. A round number, especially a big one, means the government is flying blind.

Which is the case with the $1-billion, since there is no federal government or federal ministers capable of determining which buildings and campuses are more dilapidated than others. Whose roof is leaking more, anyway? Whose residence is in worse shape?

Provinces would know this better than Ottawa, but there is no sense in the budget that they, and not Ottawa, will get to spend the federal money. “Open federalism” might have been the Harperites’ mantra, but apparently not for this program, at least not yet. And, anyway, “open federalism” brought no political gains in Quebec, where it was supposed to impress voters.

Research budgets are going up, if we recall the increases in past budgets. It made no sense, however, for cuts to be imposed this year, so the rate of increase will be slowed. Money for research does flow into the economy, even though there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The research money helps make the economy more productive by creating more “public goods” of knowledge.

Knowing Mr. Harper’s stubbornness, forget a climbdown.

But here’s a compromise: Take $100-million to $200-million of that building fund and give it to the granting agencies. Result? Shovels get into the ground, and a few more brains get funded.

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