Harper is not funding science, he’s subsidizing business

Posted on in Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Politics/Politics Insider
Apr. 27 2015.   André Picard

Last December, the federal government unveiled its $1.5-billion science and technology strategy. In the foreword to the document, with the flowery title “Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this:

“The success of our economy, the prosperity of our communities and the well-being of our families depend on advancing cutting-edge science, technology and innovation in Canada.”

Well, you wouldn’t know it from the most recent federal Economic Action Plan. In the exercise once known simply as the federal budget, Finance Minister Joe Oliver said the government would invest more than $1.5-billion in scientific research over the next five years.

This is the same $1.5-billion that was in the science strategy. Many have noted that this government has a penchant for announcing things over and over again to create the illusion it is doing more than it is, and this is another striking example.

Anyhow, at least the budget provided more detail on how the money would be allocated.

The bulk of it, $1.3-billion, will go to the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The three main granting agencies that Canadian scientists depend on for funding their research will get a pittance, about $185-million over five years. That translates into:

$15-million a year for the Canadian Institutes for Health Research;
$15-million annually for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada;
$7-million for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
It’s not just that the amounts invested are paltry, but the new money that is there tends to be directed at specific projects.

Here are a couple of examples the Canadian Medical Association Journal cited in its analysis of the budget to underscore the point.

Exhibit 1: The CFI’s $1.3-billion allocation is over six years, roughly $222-million a year; between 1997 and 2012, however, its annual allocation averaged $370-million.

So, what we have is a government that can’t stop talking about the importance of innovation, surreptitiously rolling back on its commitment to scientific innovation.

Further, CFI invests principally in infrastructure; while that’s essential, what exactly is the point of building more labs and buying more fancy equipment if you’re not going to adequately fund scientists?

Exhibit 2: The CIHR is the principal source of scientific grants in Canada, with a budget hovering around $1-billion a year.

Its meagre $15-million increase has been earmarked for two initiatives: $13-million to expand its patient-oriented research strategy and $2-million for basic research on antibiotic-resistant infections.

These are important areas but, remember, that the flip side of the coin, is that all other research areas are getting zero increase.

The story is the same with other granting agencies. The NSERC monies are targeted at two programs: $10-million for collaborations between colleges/universities and energy/natural resources companies, and $5-million for industry-backed research at polytechnic institutes.

And the $7-million for the SSHRC will get is strictly for “knowledge translation” initiatives with business.

Other research related initiatives in the budget include $46-million a year to the National Research Council for “industry-partnered research and development activities” and $14-million annually for graduate student internships “focused on business-related challenges.”

Can you spot a trend here?

Mr. Harper’s government is micromanaging research dollars so that it can use universities/colleges as surrogates for industrial research.

What the budget provided is not more money for science, but subsidies for big business under the guise of scientific investment.

This is not to suggest that scientists should not work with industry. But the federal government’s approach is based on the simplistic and wrong-headed notion that if you pump a few bucks into “innovation” (especially the kind your corporate buddies favour), the result will be instant jobs and profit. If only it were so simple.

The greatest innovations in scientific history – the wheel, electricity, antibiotics, vaccination, the combustion engine – have almost all been the result of serendipity. You give scientists the time and money to study problems and find innovative solutions.

The notion these solutions will come more quickly if government tells scientists what to do and who to work with is laughable.

Government’s role should be to invest tax dollars for the collective good, not where you can get the quickest return on investment. In most cases, that means investing where industry will not.

In his budget speech, Mr. Oliver said Ottawa’s investments in research were aimed at “attracting the best and brightest minds from around the globe in science, research and development.”

There’s not a hope in hell that’s going to happen in the current environment, where scientists are muzzled, where research funds are increasingly scarce and come with far too many strings attached.

Research and innovation are good places to invest if you want to bolster the economy. Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich made that point eloquently in a recent New York Times opinion piece, where he argues that the budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health should be doubled from its current $30-billion (U.S.) a year. He notes, however, that investments in health research have to be driven by the needs of citizens, and be non-partisan “because health is both a moral and financial issue.”

Amen.

If the NIH was funded the same as the CIHR, its budget would be only $10-billion a year and it would lose much of its ability to drive innovation.

Yet, the CIHR budget continues to flatline (at best); the frustrations of researchers continue to grow as their opportunities to excel diminish.

In the increasingly competitive global research enterprise, Canada is losing ground quickly.

If that were not enough, the government is now sending the message that it’s only interested in funding science that aligns with its ideology.

That will suffocate, not bolster, innovation.

Instead of seizing the moment, we are mortgaging the future.

André Picard is The Globe’s public health reporter.

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