Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada

From the Globe and Mail:

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” with billions in new investments, leaders in the Canadian research community were left scratching their heads over Stephen Harper’s response to what many fear will become a widening funding gap.

The headline numbers offered Tuesday drew praise from university leaders. There is $2-billion for colleges and universities to fix their aging buildings, $87.5-million for new graduate scholarships and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure. […]

But more than 250 pages back in the budget are figures that point to cuts to the three federal granting councils, the bodies that hand out the money to support continuing research. Over three years, the base budgets of the three agencies will be reduced by $87.2-million; the government says this money will be directed to other spending programs in higher education.

More here. A further clarification from the Educational Policy Institute:

The new money is meant to pay for 500 doctoral scholarships valued at $35,000 annually over 3 years and 1,000 one-time scholarships for students at the Master’s level valued at $ 17,500 each. Scholarships in science and medicine are unrestricted in terms of subject area; SSHRC scholarships, on the other hand, will be restricted to students in programs related to business studies. This, again, is consistent with earlier Conservative policies, which have specifically avoided providing SSHRC with new funds for areas apart from business and economics.

However, the granting councils will not see an overall budget increase as a result of these scholarships. This is because the three councils, as a result of regular Program Review, will see a cumulative decrease in their funding over the next three years of $87.2 million. Thus, the new graduate scholarships are effectively being paid for as-yet unspecified reductions in other areas of research spending. Moreover, while the increase in scholarships is temporary (after two years, spending is supposed to revert back to present levels), the cut in budgets is meant to be permanent.

Evidently, Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty, and their advisors don’t know or care much about either science or graduate education.

Canadian science saw a significant brain gain in recent years. To some extent, it may have been due to what is now commonly referred to as Bush’s “war on science”, but there is no denying that a key role was played by Canadian federal programs (such as the Canada Research Chairs) designed to attract top scientists. Unfortunately, what was missing from those programs was a matching permanent increase in research funding. This first became apparent in the 2006/07 competition year – I wrote about it here in more detail. To put it bluntly, it makes no sense to pay top dollars to bring some of the world’s best scientists to Canada, then refuse to fund the research that they were hired to do. The Canadian taxpayers get no return on their investment. The scientists will look for better opportunities elsewhere. Some are already in the process of doing so.

The increased funding for buildings and infrastructure does not solve the problem. Yes, many of our buildings are in poor shape and need to be repaired or replaced. That doesn’t mean that one should get so caught up in infrastructure projects as to prioritize them above research and education, the purposes that this infrastructure is supposed to be serving. I’ve seen this happen any number of times. The construction on university campuses, in terms of the choice of projects, their timing and specifics of design, is more likely to be guided by the funding arrangements than by the actual needs of the academic community. Additionally, professors and students are often made to feel as if they are standing in the way of the Really Important Construction Projects, by having classes in buildings under renovations, working in their offices, and generally being around where they’re not wanted.

What we really need in order to be able to function as scientists is operating research grants. That’s the money we spend on students, postdocs, travel to conferences, and our daily work in general. Cut that out, and our research programs get killed. Even if we teach in a renovated classroom with a built-in computer.

Now, a lion’s share of our grants is usually spent on support for graduate students, so it might seem harmless to redirect that money so that it goes directly to students in the form of graduate scholarships. Unfortunately, there are many problems with the current plan.

There is no good rationale for a large but short-lived increase in graduate funding. Graduate students in Canada tend to spend several years in graduate school: 2 years in a Master’s program and additional four for a Ph.D. An extra round of teaser scholarships to students who happen to apply in a certain year will surely be appreciated by those students who get the money. Once the 2-year or 3-year scholarships expire, I guess we’ll just have to tell these students that we can’t continue to support them at that level – possibly, at any level – with our freshly cut grants.

Is 35K too much? This post and the follow-up discussion present several points of view on this. Me, I would happily offer that kind of money to students if I could afford to do so. As it is, my current grant (without the Discovery Accelerator Supplement) is 35K per year, and that was one of the highest grants in mathematics awarded in 2007. Obviously, if we had to fund our students at the 35K level, we wouldn’t have a lot of them.

But my main point here is that – and I’ll try to say it as clearly and politely as I can – it is not possible to have a good graduate program without outstanding researchers on the faculty. I can’t emphasize it enough. Graduate program is a lot like apprenticeship. You learn scholarship and research from active scholars and researchers, by watching them, interacting with them, working with them. The better mentors you have, the more you can learn from them. The attractiveness and prestige of the Harvard or Princeton graduate schools is not based on the money they offer to graduate students – or on the beauty and functionality of their buildings, for that matter. It’s based, first and foremost, on the excellence of their research faculty.

I don’t need to be told that financial support for students is important, given that my own graduate education was funded by a combination of various scholarships and teaching assistantships (not anywhere close to the 35K per year level). It is, however, secondary to giving them a reason to want to come in the first place. Chase away the research faculty by cutting off the funding for their research programs, and the best graduate students will follow them, fancy Canadian scholarships notwithstanding.

And once that happens, it will not be easy to repair the damage. Good graduate programs aren’t created instantly with a stroke of a politician’s pen. They’re built over many years, through the combined efforts of faculty and several generations of students. Right now, Canada has already invested into hiring a new generation of outstanding researchers. We, in turn, have been working hard to develop and improve our graduate programs. To continue that work, we need to have stable levels of funding and a say in how that money is spent. We should not let Harper’s government take that away from us.

Finally, a word about NSERC. I don’t know why it has not advocated more forcefully on our behalf. I don’t know why it’s not up in arms over this right now, why there’s not even any mention of the budget cuts on its web page. I’m guessing that the cuts will just get passed on to us, and specifically to the individual researchers and their Discovery Grants, because that’s easy to cut without getting into political trouble. But it’s precisely the individual research grants that need to be protected at a time like this.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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