Canadian Budget Light on New Research Dollars

Relief was the order of the day for Canadian scientists on Thursday as the federal government brought down its fiscal blueprint for 2010-11.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty moved to partially offset scheduled cuts in the budgets of the nation's three granting councils, though they'll still take a blow and there'll be tighter competition for research operating grants.

Flaherty also set aside $43.65 million over 5 years to create 140 "prestigious post-doctoral fellowships … to attract top-level talent to Canada." The high-end fellowships will be awarded at a level of $67,917.50 per year for 2 years. But there was a nary a sign of monies for special initiatives that the community had sought, such as the one proposed by Canadian Institutes of Health Research President Alain Beaudet to craft the parameters of a national dementia strategy.

Although the net effect of the various research measures was essentially a flat-lined science budget, the community was grateful that the government decided to delay by a year its efforts to rein in the federal deficit.

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada President Paul Davidson was "relieved" that the axe was stayed for a year. "In this town, there were significant rumors of substantial cuts and the research community was spared."

Flaherty indicated that the government was deferring its budget cutting by a year as it did not want to compromise the two-year economic stimulus plan that was announced in the 2009 federal budget to deal with the economic recession. Overall government spending for fiscal year 2010-11 will rise by $12.41 billion to $272 billion.

Allocations for the nation's three research granting councils, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will rise by an aggregate $31.04 million in each of the next 2 years. But that doesn't offset the $41.71 million and $84.59 million hits that the councils are collectively scheduled to take in the next 2 fiscal years as a result of restraint measures announced in 2009. The council's respective budgets for 2010-11 will be roughly $957 million, $992 million, and $660 million, but about 30% of the medical and natural sciences budgets, and about 45% of the social sciences budget, represent monies that are administered by the councils on behalf of the government for designated programs like one to provide assistance to universities to cover the indirect costs of research. The latter monies are not available for operating grants or other granting council research initiatives.

Other research measures announced by Flaherty included $72.75 million for a forestry and environmental genomics competition at Genome Canada; $63.78 million over 5 years for the Canadian Space Agency's plan to develop the RADARSAT Constellation Mission, which proposes to generate radar images using multiple satellites; and $17.46 million over 5 years "to commence the pre-construction design phase" for the proposed Canadian Arctic Research Initiative.

Scientists welcomed those announcements, but were unenthusiastic to hear that the government will conduct the latest in a series of reviews of federal science spending. It will look to industry for guidance on how to spend its research money, aiming for outlays to be aligned along commercialization priorities, documents stated, so they will inform future decisions regarding federal support for R&D.

"Woof," Canadian Association of University Teachers Executive Director Jim Turk said in response, adding that he's "lost count" of the number of science policy reviews the government has conducted over the last 5 years. The coming review, Turk said, is clearly intended to feed government intentions "to tie academic research into the private sector."

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