New federal government signals changes for universities
SSHRC's proposed reforms seem aligned with Martin's priorities
The relationship between higher education and a Paul Martin government is going to change at both political and official levels - but it's far from clear just how profound the changes will be.
The political shift, formalized Dec. 12 along with the naming of the new cabinet, clearly represents the Prime Minister's desire for a bigger return for the country from the $2.3 billion federal payout this fiscal year for science and technology in the higher education sector.
While always careful to acknowledge the importance of curiosity-driven research, Mr. Martin has repeatedly emphasized greater commercialization of research in universities as a key element in his plans for an innovation economy. In speeches and interviews he has said the government intends to track the effectiveness of university research commercialization, without elaborating on how.
Mr. Martin has also clearly stated his intention to keep a close eye personally on all aspects of science and technology, a focus that has already jangled the federal bureaucracy. As he told an interviewer before taking office: "There's no doubt in government that when the prime minister takes an interest in a subject, that subject is suddenly highlighted in town substantially."
The first confirmation of that interest was his creation of two new political positions in his own office - a national science adviser and a parliamentary secretary - whose jobs include fostering greater commercialization and also putting into effect "a government-wide emphasis on science."
According to policy insiders, that phrase has a double thrust. First, it means harmonizing the government's own science efforts on such cross-cutting issues as sustainable development and globalization. Second, it means ensuring that the best science from all sources reaches the central federal agencies and senior decision-makers.
These tasks won't get under way at once, since Arthur Carty doesn't officially shift from being president of the National Research Council to the PMO's science adviser until April. Joe Fontana, the London MP who was named parliamentary secretary for the new portfolio of science and small business, estimates that a national science policy won't be ready for a year.
Dr. Carty said one particular challenge in Canada is a shortage of parliamentarians with a science or engineering background, unlike countries like Britain where those fields are well represented in the House of Lords. Taiwan even has cabinet ministers with science degrees, said Dr. Carty. "We may have to think through the involvement here differently than using the traditional parliamentary committee," he added.
In his first week in office, Mr. Martin discussed his goal of putting a government-wide emphasis on science with the National Advisory Council on Science and Technology, a group that gained a high profile under Brian Mulroney but was mostly ignored by Jean Chrétien's government. Earlier this fall, however, the advisory council was revitalized with new staff and the appointment of Jacquelyn Thayer Scott as deputy chair, the top external position. Dr. Scott was president of the University College of Cape Breton from 1993 to 2002.
Dr. Scott noted that government strategy has emphasized "pushing" science and technology through mechanisms like the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs, budget increases for the federal granting councils and so on. "The principal task now is to pull S&T through to the marketplace and the community," she said in an interview.
Changes at SSHRC
Some of that pull could soon originate with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. On the same day that Paul Martin outlined his new political apparatus, SSHRC took a major step towards ensuring a central role in the new federal order for the 18,000 faculty members from its disciplines. The SSHRC governing council approved in principle a consultation document that gives details of possible changes to current programs and proposes new approaches to transform the granting agency.
Although reforms have been discussed internally for several years, SSHRC is the last of the three federal granting councils to start making changes. In 2000, the Medical Research Council reinvented itself as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. And the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, after formally approving a new "vision" last June, is devoting up to $7 million in the coming fiscal year for pilot programs dealing with several new themes, including math and science education and a framework for ranking big science proposals.
Yet the sweeping changes proposed by SSHRC may eventually dovetail best with the policy priorities of the Martin government. A final version of the renewal document - "with more aggressive wording," according to one insider - is expected to reach campuses by mid-January (after University Affairs was scheduled to go to press).
The draft reviewed in December by SSHRC's governing council is blunt enough to guarantee debate. The paper says more must be done to ensure SSHRC-funded research is transformed into shared knowledge. It says research findings don't "trickle down" to society from peer-reviewed journals and that the country has too few influential knowledge-brokers such as think tanks or foundations.
"The net result is that the social sciences and humanities are confronted by a paradox: they are present everywhere but, for all intents and purposes, visible nowhere," the document states.
Getting more impact from research findings involves interactive, sustained connections among "knowledge producers, knowledge mediators and knowledge users," says the discussion paper. It suggests eight possible new approaches, including the creation of:
- knowledge mobilization units in universities, possibly patterned after the six Centres de Liaison et de Transfert in Quebec (which include, for example, the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche en analyse des organisations, or CIRANO);
- confederations of learning to support systematic and repeated interactions among several researchers with a shared interest, similar to programs of the Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research;
- a clearinghouse for advanced expertise along the lines of the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., to act as matchmaker between knowledgeable researchers and parliamentarians, or even the public through town-hall meetings;
- an endowed human-sciences foundation, to compensate for Canada's paucity of knowledge-brokering mechanisms.
Likely more contentious on campuses will be seven ideas in the discussion paper about possible changes to existing SSHRC programs. These proposals include giving less money to more researchers or more money to fewer, earmarking funds for young scholars, pulling back from institutional-support programs, and boosting the synergy of strategic grants.
Separate from reforms under way at both SSHRC and NSERC, the Martin government said it plans to do an assessment of all federal R&D support, apparently more a function-based inventory than a value-for-money audit. The severing of Human Resources Development Canada into two new departments focusing on skills development and social development is also likely to have an impact on issues involving higher education.
Most of these changes aren't expected to take effect until after an election, widely expected for the spring. It's already evident, however, that many aspects of the relationship between the federal government and higher education will be altered.
Peter Calamai is the national science reporter for the Toronto Star based in Ottawa.