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Federal budget gets mixed reviews

Infrastructure spending welcome but research story less rosy

BY PEGGY BERKOWITZ | FEB 09 2009

With a stimulus package designed for a country in recession, the 2009 federal budget gave much to universities in the way of infrastructure spending, but it also took some things away with measures that the university community views as worrisome.

A new $2 billion infrastructure fund to help pay for deferred maintenance and repairs at colleges and universities was the budget centerpiece as far as the postsecondary sector was concerned. Universities will have access to 70 percent of the fund, with a preference for projects that improve the quality of research and development. The federal funds will require matching funds from partners (with no details at the time University Affairs went to press).

Universities face “very substantial and longstanding deferred maintenance issues, so it’s wonderful that we will have the kind of resources that this program will create,” said Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University and chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The backlog of deferred maintenance on university campuses is estimated at $5 billion, of which almost half is considered urgent.

“In a similar vein, the provision of more funds for CFI is good news,” he said. The budget injects $750 million in new spending for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, between now and December 2010 to support new installations for university research. Of that, $150 million will support the competition now underway. The remainder will support one or two more competitions by December 2010, in priority areas to be selected by the Minister of Industry in consultation with CFI, guided by the foundation’s strategic plan.

But Dr. Traves also pointed to “worrisome features” in the budget, in particular, cuts to the base budgets of the research granting councils and a trend for the government to be more involved in directing the way university research funding is spent, such as selecting categories for the types of CFI projects.

“The cuts of five percent over three years to the granting councils is clearly a disturbing development. We’re in a very competitive environment,” said Dr. Traves, noting that “everyone is watching the so-called Obama effect to see if there’s going to be some reinvestment in research in the U.S. This could become an issue for us.”

On the positive side, he said, the government took an amount equivalent to the council cuts – $87.5 million – 
to offer additional Canada Graduate Scholarships for three years. Most of them are split between CIHR and NSERC, with $17.5 million going to SSHRC, the latter to be focused on 
business-related degrees.

“This reflects government’s now clear intention to be far more directive in terms of the development of the research agenda in the country and its associated partner, the graduate education system,” said Dr. Traves. “Personally I think this is very unfortunate.” That sentiment was echoed by the social sciences and humanities community. “Targeting [scholarship funds] to science and business was disappointing, and seems to be shortsighted,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Other budget items affecting universities included $50 million to help pay for a world-class research facility at the Institute for Quantum Computing, based at the University of Waterloo; and $50 million over two years to develop a common framework for foreign credential assessment in Canada.

“Overall, the PSE community should on balance be happy with this budget,” said the Educational Policy Institute, an independent think tank. It said that “$2.75 billion in infrastructure is a simply massive investment, and its effects will be felt and appreciated at campuses across the country. The lack of new funds for expanded research efforts is disappointing, and reduces what could have been a home-run of a budget to perhaps a ground-rule double.”

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