The budget and the new research reality
By Roland Andersson
Depending on where you sit the recent federal budget is either a boon or a disappointment. When the CIC sent out the Canadian Consortium for Research (CCR) press release on March 30 to members, we did so knowing researchers from industry, academia and government would see things differently from each other. But as one of about 20 member societies in CCR we have to develop positions of consensus. The press release strongly criticized the government for not increasing basic research funding; was it a fair assessment? It all depends on your perspective.
For at least the last ten years, report after government-sponsored report has repeatedly cited meagre levels of industrial research and innovation as being a significant weakness in the Canadian economy. But one might ask “Why should the government assist industry with research dollars?” The answer: The private sector mandate is to make a profit. It’s hard to justify spending money on research — even applied research — when the outcome is not guaranteed. And investors are scrutinizing management decisions. Programs like the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and the Industrial Research and Development Internship (IRDI) are designed to connect university researchers with industry. From my earlier experience in the chemical industry, including several years in the research department of an industrial coatings company and later as a general manager of two chemical plants where we used IRAP extensively, I agree with the $220 million phase-in over two years to double IRAP funding to companies. The budget also provides $14 million over the next two years to double the IRDI program for graduate students and post-docs. I give the government full marks for trying to change the research culture in Canadian industry.
As for the granting councils and academic research funding, the budget calls for a $74 million reduction over the next two years. This is offset by reinvestments in the Councils of $37 million in 2012-2013, an amount equivalent to the reduction in the first year. For NSERC, the net potential reduction, expected in 2013-2014, is $15 million or 1.5 per cent of their total budget, including a 10 per cent decrease of operating expenses to be reached in the second year. This is on par with the 5 per cent and 10 per cent reduction that all federal government departments were asked to submit plans for. The reductions are to be applied under the proviso that: “programming in support of basic research, student scholarships, and industry-related initiatives and collaborations are preserved.”
The budget includes $12 million annually in the Business Led Networks Centres of Excellence, $500 million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, $28 million to Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network, $60 million for Genome Canada and $10 million for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The goal of the budget is to reduce the deficit; in this light, the academic research community did well. The most notable change to government research and funding is the shift in the National Research Council’s (NRC) management system from research institutes to targeted industrial programs. NRC will receive $67 million in 2012–2013 to refocus on “business-led, industry-relevant research.” The government’s wording is not entirely clear but the budget states that it “will consider ways to better focus the NRC on demand-driven research, consistent with the recommendations of the [Jenkins] Expert panel.” It is the chipping away at other government research programs, dollars and positions that concerns me. There is a tendency to think that the private sector can fill the void of these cut programs more efficiently than government. Time will tell.
The research landscape is shifting in Canada. The government’s financial incentives to increase industry, academia and government collaboration appear to have the ultimate goal of changing our industrial culture to one where more companies will hire research scientists and engineers — and the payoff will be innovation and its benefits to society. Germany, Finland and Korea all have this extensive three-way collaborative culture. I would advocate strongly for this in Canada.
The CIC will create its own Brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance this year which will be used for discussions with federal bureaucrats and Members of Parliament with the goal of influencing the federal budget in 2013. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts on what recommendations should be conveyed.
Roland Andersson is CIC Executive Director.
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