Budget S&T draws mixed reviews

Last week’s budget is getting mixed reviews in the research community. “Money for bricks, but not talent” read one prominent headline.
Big money for university infrastructureAt first glance, its overall strategy is somewhat puzzling:

  • Big money for graduate student scholarships
  • BUT… a cut in research grant funding

Apparently, our plan is to build shiny new buildings, fill them with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students, and then clamp down on the money for grants. Those are the funds research labs compete for to buy materials, equipment and pay for staff to actually do research.

Those scholarship students may be standing in a nice new building, twiddling their thumbs, with nothing to do.

This isn’t to say that the budget doesn’t contain many welcome investments in S&T that have rightly been applauded:

  • $2 billion for post-secondary institutions to conduct long-overdue maintenance on aging buildings;
  • $87.5 million for new graduate student scholarships;
  • $750 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the non-profit agency that funds research infrastructure;
  • $50 million for the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

But buried later in the budget we learn that the three main funding agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – will have their budgets collectively reduced by $113 million over the next three years.

Even more alarming is the complete omission of any new funding for Genome Canada, the non-profit agency responsible for funding large-scale science and genetics projects. This scaling-back of support for research has many worried that Canadian science will soon be overshadowed by a rejuvenated American research engine under President Obama.

Perhaps it’s asking too much for a minority government – one under intense political pressure to deliver a short-term economic “stimulus” or face its demise – to recognize that an investment in research creates jobs in the long-term. But long-term vision is critical if we’re going to competitive once the economic downturn lifts. Canada needs a coherent science policy that transcends short-term fiscal and political calculations.

The 2009 Canadian Science Policy conference is an exciting initiative that aims to address this need. This national-level conference, to be held in Toronto in October 2009, is being planned by a grassroots movement of young scientists – many of whom are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. (In the interests of full disclosure, this author is one of them!)

The conference has three primary objectives to:

  1. Identify and discuss current Canadian science policy issues;
  2. Create networking opportunities to forge stronger links between scientists and policy-makers; and
  3. Lay the foundation for establishing a Canadian “virtual institute” for science policy research.

For more information, visit the conference website.