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Harper Unveils New Fund for Canadian Research Excellence

12 February 2014 2:00 pm
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Academic upgrade. Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, had some good news for Canadian researchers yesterday.

Deb Ransom/Prime Minister’s Office

Academic upgrade. Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, had some good news for Canadian researchers yesterday.

Although a federal election is more than a year off and the goodies weren’t expected to flow until then, Canadian researchers got a sneak peak yesterday of their campaign sugar.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled a fiscal plan for 2014 to ’15 that includes a promise to shell out $1.36 billion over 10 years to create a Canada First Research Excellence Fund. According to the budget document, the fund will “position Canada’s post-secondary institutions to compete with the best in the world for talent and breakthrough discoveries.” Flaherty said it would “help [institutions] excel globally in research areas that create long-term economic advantages for Canada.”

The new fund is the latest example of a large research program to serve national goals that is created outside the regular channel of competitive grants to individual scientists. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has supported research infrastructure projects since 1997, and in 2000 the Canada Research Chairs program was launched to enable leading universities to attract leading academics from around the world as well as building up homegrown talent.

Exactly where the new fund fits won’t be known until the government provides more details. In particular, it’s unclear the extent to which Flaherty’s emphasis on economic advantages means that the program will ultimately focus on industrial collaborations aimed at economic development, an approach consistent with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s view of the role of science.

What is known is that funding won’t begin to flow until fiscal 2015 to ’16, and the first tranche will be a modest $45 million. That amount will grow each year until it reaches a “steady state” level of $182 million in fiscal 2018 to ’19.

At first blush, the new fund resembles a proposal last fall from Canada’s 15 research-intensive universities for a pot of money to “improve partnerships with industry to create research industry clusters, attract and retain the best talent from around the world, stimulate the rate of ground-breaking discoveries, and enhance our international competitiveness.” But finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity, said it’s premature to conclude that the new fund will have a commercialization focus.

For now, all that’s been established is that the new fund will involve peer-reviewed competitions; that it will be administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which oversees the research chairs program; and that there will be a prohibition on using the monies for capital investments, as that falls under the purview of CFI.

The government’s new fiscal plan also provides an additional $41 million divided among the nation’s three granting councils, raising their combined budgets to approximately $2.5 billion. (In addition to SSHRC, there are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR]). Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, was elated that the increases were “untargeted,” but Flaherty indicated that an unspecified portion of the CIHR allocation is ticketed for the establishment of a Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging.

Whatever the exact amount, it falls well short of the government’s pledge to significantly ramp up dementia research as part of a global bid to find a cure by 2025. It’s also a far cry from the multibillion dollar pool that CIHR President Alain Beaudet once envisioned as part of a comprehensive national dementia strategy.

Flaherty’s budget also extended the Conservative government’s practice of ticketing specific universities and institutes for strategic largesse. This year’s winner was the University of Waterloo, which will receive $13.6 million over 3 years for its Institute for Quantum Computing and $2.7 million to create an Open Data Institute. In other science measures, funding to support the indirect costs of research will also rise by $8 million, to $310 million annually.

Overall spending in Flaherty’s 2014 to ’15 blueprint is projected to decline by $1.18 billion to $253.5 billion. That would leave the government with a deficit of $2.63 billion and the debt load rising to $562.1 billion.

Flaherty was unabashed in presenting what amounts to a status quo budget. “What we will do—what we have always done—is stay the course,” he said.

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