Science has been quite prominent on the Canadian political radar in recent years, and even became a regular talking point during the last federal election in 2015. During that campaign, the current Liberal government made four headline promises, and with the release yesterday of the 2018–19 federal budget, one of the key puzzle pieces fell into place: increased funding for fundamental research. In today’s post, we’ll assess the budget’s meaning for science in Canada.
Follow the money
Let’s not beat around the bush: yesterday was about the money. How could it be otherwise on budget day, after all? One of the headline promises of the Liberal government was that it would take concrete steps to reverse the course set by the previous government in its management of science. In particular, research funding under Stephen Harper had come with strings attached about economic applicability. This led to considerable declines in real spending power for fundamental research.
A quick recap of events since then will be helpful to orient our discussion.
|October 2015||Trudeau government elected|
|November 2015||Kirsty Duncan named Minister of Science, with a mandate to shore up “support for fundamental research”|
|March 2016||Federal budget injects $90 million (ongoing annual basis) into research funding council budget, as stopgap measure|
|June 2016||Naylor panel convened to study the question of research funding in Canada|
|March 2017||Budget 2017 released without major new investments in fundamental research|
|April 2017||Naylor report released|
The Naylor report contained many recommendations, but the one that got the most press—and surely is the focus of attention right now, given the release of the budget yesterday—is the recommendation that funding for the three granting councils be increased. The amounts were quite high, too, calling for an increase from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion to remediate slides over the decade of the previous government’s term.
The timing of the report’s release was wise, as a release before that year’s budget might have created the expectation that the money would flow immediately, which simply doesn’t fit with the timelines of federal budget development processes. From April 2017 to now, the research community in Canada has rallied around the report and its recommendations, sustaining a campaign to keep research (and its funding) in the national discussion.
One note that the panel emphasized was that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) had been hit particularly hard. The rule of thumb is apparently that SSHRC is supposed to get 20% of the total granting council budget, while 40% goes to the natural sciences & engineering (NSERC) and 40% goes to health research (CIHR). SSHRC’s portion had consistently clocked in at around 15%.
Furthermore, the report emphasized that the underlying reasoning behind the 40-40-20 split might not hold water anymore, as the social sciences and humanities really don’t have any other major sources of funding beyond government support, whereas other types of research can draw on support from other players as well. The 40-40-20 split from government is not a 40-40-20 split in practice once additional sources are considered in the equation.
Delivery: as promised?
And that brings us to yesterday’s budget. While the report had called for an injection of $1.3 billion, the finance minister apparently couldn’t scrape together more than a measly $925 million—which, of course, is a huge amount of money. Some will lament the gap and rend their shirts in twain about promises broken, while others will cheer the victory of science retaking its rightful place through another #PromiseKept. That increase translated into a 25% bump in fundamental research spending, so I guess how you feel about it depends on your views about how much a 25% increase really means. For those keeping score at home, that apparently closes the gap to about 90% of real spending power levels before the slides under Harper.
But was it a 25% increase for everyone? No, the $925 million was not split evenly between the councils. Identical portions of $354.7 million will go to NSERC and CIHR (roughly 38% each from the new money) while $215.5 million will go to SSHRC (just over 23% of the new money). Comparing their funding levels this morning to those of yesterday morning, NSERC and CIHR saw increases of about 20%–25%, while SSHRC saw an increase of over 40%.
But did the government really heed the advice of their panel about getting back to the 40-40-20 allocation across the councils (while acknowledging that even that split is perhaps not sufficient anymore)? With its increase, SSHRC will be up from 15% of the tri-council total to about 16.5% of the total. That sounds like progress.
On the flip side, though, the government has just announced a massive injection to research spending, with an ongoing annual increase after that (following the same split as the one-time boost). No further increases are likely to happen again in the near future, and it would take three more increases just like this one for SSHRC to reach its 20%. The social sciences and humanities have made some headway, but they aren’t likely to get any closer than this to their 20%. The big investment has been made, and this will be the status quo for a while—consider that the Naylor panel was the first of its kind in 40 years.
Is this an emerging pattern? The government speaks of interpreting “science” very broadly when vaunting its value, but at the same time struggles to articulate a clear understanding of the inter-relationship between different forms of inquiry, or to maintain a sense of equality between them.
This point is worth reflecting on, given that the technology our society is developing and using is beginning to threaten our civil discourse and democracy—not because it’s breaking down but because it’s working exactly as designed. (Budget money went out for that too, by the way, with the next election coming up in 2019.) Perhaps balancing different forms of inquiry is more than just a question of fairness, difficulties in integrating them are more than merely philosophical, and the resulting challenges are more than merely speculative.
Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.