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Federal budget supports research agenda

Majority Harper government sees research support as key to prosperity and jobs growth.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAR 30 2012
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In a federal budget that trimmed from many government departments and agencies, the research sector saw significant new investments, earning the budget “high marks” from Canada’s university presidents. “It’s actually been a very good day for Canada’s universities, because the government has made some smart and strategic investments in research and innovation,” said Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada President Paul Davidson following the delivery of the budget yesterday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Digvir Jayas, vice-president, research, at the University of Manitoba, shared those sentiments. “The federal government should be commended and congratulated for its long-term vision to increase productivity and prosperity for Canadians through investments in all aspects of research, development and commercialization,” he said. “This is of particular significance because the government has done this under tight fiscal conditions.”

Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates consulting firm, also commented: “All in all, it was a budget which was surprisingly heavy on [postsecondary education]-related topics.”

Canada’s three main research granting agencies will see some cuts to their budgets, but these will be offset by equivalent increases targeted to support industry-academic research partnerships. Starting in 2012-2013, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research will receive $15 million per year for its Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council will also receive $15 million a year, for its Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will receive $7 million a year for its industry-academic partnership initiatives.

Other key investments for the sector include $500 million over five years for the Canada Foundation for Innovation to support advanced research infrastructure; $60 million for Genome Canada to launch a new applied research competition in the area of human health and to sustain the Science and Technology Centres until 2014-15; and $40 million over two years to support the operation of Canada’s ultra-high speed research network, CANARIE – on an annualized basis, close to what the agency was asking for.

A number of other targeted research investments include:

  • $6.5 million over three years for a research project at McMaster University to evaluate team-based approaches to health care delivery;
  • $17 million over two years to further advance the development of alternatives to Canada’s existing medical isotope production technologies; and
  • $10 million over two years to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to link Canadians to global research networks.

In addition, the budget earmarked $14 million over two years to double the Industrial Research and Development Internship program. The funding, to be administered by the research organization MITACS, gives graduate students research experience in the private sector – an initiative called for by AUCC, noted Mr. Davidson.

The positive reviews of the budget weren’t shared by all. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, sounded a discordant note, saying the budget jeopardizes Canada’s long-term development by “weakening” the country’s research capacity.

“With this budget, the government turns away from the kind of research that leads to new discoveries in favour of a narrow and short-term commercial agenda,” said Mr. Turk. “By linking research only to business interests, the government will stifle rather than promote growth and scientific advancement.”

Mr. Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates also voiced some concern that the government continues to pick specific research projects that it favours, bypassing the research granting councils. “When can we all publicly admit that the [Prime Minister’s Office] has become the fourth granting council?” he said. “This habit of handing out money to specific scientific projects outside the tri-council structure is becoming dangerously entrenched.”

In other areas related to education, the budget contains funding to improve educational outcomes for Canada’s Aboriginal people, including $275 million to support First Nations education on reserves. These investments “can only strengthen the opportunities for Canada’s aboriginal population to become full and active participants in Canadian society,” said Mr. Davidson.

It also proposes $67 million in the current fiscal year to support the National Research Council in refocusing on business-led, industry-relevant research, through consultations with businesses and university and college stakeholders.

The higher education sector collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the budget committed to renewing current funding arrangements for the Canada Social Transfer through 2014-2015 and subsequent years. The CST transfers federal funds to the provincial governments to support education and social programs.

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