December 8, 2014 — The Canadian government has just launched the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which represents $1.5 billion of funding over ten years. While many welcome this investment, the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU) is displeased with the directions of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which strongly supports applied research that serves the needs of companies.
In the last federal budget, Canada’s scientific community saw the total budget of the three Canadian funding agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) get reduced by 5% from the 2007–2008 budget. In reality, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund is not a reinvestment, but instead a diversion of funds that are usually allocated to the three agencies, which fund not only applied research, but also basic, theoretical research.
“The devil is in the details,” said May Roy, President of the FQPPU. “As we’d feared, researchers themselves were not consulted, nor were members of Acfas, CAUT, and the FQPPU. Industry Canada consulted with five Canadian university associations and asked for comments from only several individual universities.”
Instead of being aimed at researchers, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund is directly aimed at universities. Each university can only submit one grant application per year. In addition, the proposals must have economic potential for Canada, and fall into one of the priority fields set by the government. The FQPPU finds these requirements to be a cause for concern, and underlines the need for science to be independent from political and economic interests. Moreover, the fact that two deputy ministers associated with the Conservative Party, George Da Pont (Health Canada) and John Knubley (Industry Canada), are on the Canada First Research Excellence Fund steering committee increases the risk of political interference.
This type of targeted funding has troubling consequences for Canadian universities, since they will be forced to compete even more than they already do in order to receive funding. They will also have to allocate a larger portion of their budgets to the indirect costs of research and develop partnerships driven by funding requirements, instead of by more natural links between researchers and civil society.
“The Canada First Research Excellence Fund brings about a radical paradigm shift in the funding of university research,” said Max Roy. “We don’t think that the Canadian research system will be strengthened by focusing on a few star researchers in fields that are set by the government. This announcement is unfortunate, but not surprising, given the Conservative government’s scientific track record—closing laboratories and libraries, and muzzling scientists whose research goes against its ideology.”