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A forced merger between Quebec’s three research funding agencies

Quebec’s scientific community regrets the lack of consultation and has concerns about negative effects on the province’s research system.

By JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | APR 04 2011

Since 2001, the province of Quebec has had three research funding agencies that sponsor research based on the federal model, supporting research in the areas of health, science and technology, and the humanities and social sciences. In 2010-11, the provincial government contributed more than $150 million to these three funds.

However, a year ago, to the community’s great surprise, the government announced the consolidation of the three funds into a single body, the Fonds Recherche Québec. The FRQ’s board of directors will decide on research orientation, while the three former funds will be maintained as “sector councils.” The new body is to be headed by a “chief scientist.” In the process, the government abolished the Council for Science and Technology, whose role was to issue public notices, replacing the council with a strategic committee within the ministry whose notices will not be made public.

“This was not in the cards at all,” said Pierre Noreau, director of the Association francophone pour le savoir, known as Acfas. “This was not requested by the research community nor by the Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade,” which subsidizes the three funds. “This is a Treasury Board decision, taken to simplify the structure, without consultation with the community and ignoring the particularities of the research sector.”

The merger of the three funds and the abolition of the Council for Science and Technology are part of the omnibus Bill 130 that provides for the restructuring, merger or abolition of 28 funds or bodies. Bill 130 was introduced in late February and likely will be adopted during the current parliamentary session.

When the bill was approved in principle in the National Assembly, Michelle Courchesne, president of the Treasury Board, admitted that the cost savings from these measures would be modest. Instead, she cited the increased efficiency and synergy among the funds that would, in her view, stimulate cross-disciplinary research.

Yves Gingras, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the History and Sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal, said this argument reflects an ideological bias of the current government. Disagreeing strongly with the merger, he rejected the view that simplifying the structure would result in greater efficiency.

“In fact,” he said, “the government has created the Fonds Recherche Québec with its single board of directors, but will continue to maintain the three former funds as sector councils. So it’s more complicated than before, and it doesn’t fulfill any scientific function.”

Mr. Noreau of Acfas was also critical, saying the move requires the scientific community to devote time and energy to restructuring an already well-functioning research system that was instituted just a decade ago. Gathering key decision-makers from three research communities into a single board of directors may cause a number of headaches, said Mr. Noreau. “The allocation of research budgets was once the subject of endless conflicts between research families. Dividing these families into three funds and apportioning roughly equal funding to each helped to calm relationships. This equilibrium may now be compromised.”

Monique Régimbald-Zeiber, a professor at UQAM and former vice-president of one of the original three funding councils (the one focused on humanities and social sciences), worried that certain research areas may get short shrift. She said the merger of the former funding councils will become the cornerstone for implementing the most recent provincial research and innovation strategy, which focuses on innovation and commercialization of research results. “This is extremely worrisome,” she said. “If you must constantly legitimize research in terms of yield, short-term benefits or profitability, what will be the role of basic research in history, anthropology or the arts?”

The Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities was more enthusiastic about the changes. “It’s an opportunity to strengthen academic research in Quebec,” argued CREPUQ director general Daniel Zizian. “The existence of a single board of directors will favour cross-sectoral projects. The chief scientist will promote cohesion while acting as a spokesperson for the research community to the government.”

Nevertheless, CREPUQ is proposing a number of amendments to the bill, including the removal of an article that empowers the minister to give directives to the FRQ about its general orientation and objectives. CREPUQ also recommends ensuring that all scientific decisions are taken by the sector councils.

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