Canadian Research Policy: Retrenchment or Realignment?

Adina Serbanescu

I recently had the opportunity to attend Social Planning Toronto’s July Research and Policy Forum entitled ‘Austerity or Ideology?’ Although the tagline could aptly encapsulate several recent policy changes, the SPT Forum focused on the upsurge of funding cuts and caps to research, and the realignment of priorities around research at both the federal and provincial level. The three speakers – Peggy Taillon, Sara Mayo, and Dr. Greg Singer – presented significantly different views on research and policy-making.

Ms. Taillon, President of the Canadian Council on Social Development, focused on changes at the federal level and described a trend of “policy-based evidence-making.” Drawing on quotes from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stint at the National Citizens Coalition and examples of recent federal cuts, she painted a picture of a government ideologically opposed to evidence. Particularly of note were the “insidious” funding cuts to Environment Canada, the nascent First Nations Statistical Institute, and the Experimental Great Lakes Area, and of course, the elimination of the mandatory long-form census. Ideology or ideologically-based policy trumps evidence and knowledge-mining. She closed with a warning that we are entering a dark era of policy regression.

Ms. Mayo, a researcher with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, presented from a community service perspective. She placed the funding cuts in the broader context of the changing relationship between government and the non-profit sector. Funding cycles have shortened and agencies are spending more time completing grant applications; grants increasingly do not support administrative costs or staff salary increases; and there is a greater emphasis on evaluation and evidence-based decision-making. She rightly pointed out the contradiction between the increased significance of evidence in proving the effectiveness of government intervention and the elimination of the mandatory long-form census as a comprehensive and reliable data source. Although she did not employ Ms. Taillon’s harsh language when referring to the federal government’s research policy changes, Ms. Mayo also indicated that the federal funding cuts were ideologically-motivated.

Dr. Singer, Director of Research Grants at Ryerson University, provided a different slant on changes to government research funding (which he emphasized is not the official position of Ryerson University). Canada, relative to the other G7 countries, is leading the HERD (Higher Education R&D) by a significant margin, but is trailing on BERD (Business Enterprise R&D), placing second to last. Canada’s academic research output, as measured by academic articles published, is significant; however, Canada is performing poorly on technological exchange and patent registration measures. Two problems are evident: Canada’s impressive scientific output is not being commercialized, and businesses are not investing in R&D. The cuts and caps to research funding look very different in this context. Indeed, one can argue that recent changes are indicative of a realignment of priorities, rather than a general scaling back from research, evidence, and knowledge.

Several new programs are designed to increase access to research dollars. The Scientific Research and Experimental Development Fund is a tax incentive program that gives Canadian businesses cash refunds and/or tax credits for spending on R&D. Its total value is $4 billion. Although it is designed to support activities that will “lead to new, improved, or technologically advanced products or processes”, applied and basic scientific research proposals that either have or do not have a “practical application in view” can qualify for the Fund. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Engage Grant encourages industries to partner with Canadian academic institutions on short-term R&D projects. Projects must be designed to address a problem specific to the applying business and should be beneficial to the Canadian economy. Although beneficial to both business and academic institutions, the intellectual property arising from these projects will belong to the business partner. At the provincial level, the merger of the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade into the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation is blatantly indicative of the Ontario government’s shifting priorities.

If posed the question “Austerity or ideology?” I would be persuaded to choose austerity. Ms. Taillon and Ms. Mayo made valid points about the increasing politicization of evidence, particularly around the elimination of the mandatory long-form census. However, one shouldn’t use broad brushstrokes to characterize the recent changes to research policy. For instance, the Metropolis Project (a national network of researchers and five centres of excellence focused on immigration) lost its federal government funding in April of this year and was mentioned in the talk as one example of an ideological axing. While this cut may appear “insidious”, especially given the recent slew of changes emanating from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Minister Kenney’s office, a quick look at Metropolis’ history should dispel such fears. Metropolis began in 1996 as a short-term initiative, and its funding (which came almost entirely from federal agencies, including CIC) has been renewed three times. Howard Duncan, the executive head of Metropolis, has said the project was given fair warning during its last renewal in 2007: “[I]t became pretty unanimous that it would be the final renewal, and they would work with the Metropolis secretariat to help it establish itself as an independent think-tank.” He concludes, “[a] lot of people will be disappointed but the government has been very supportive in helping us establish ourselves. This is not a mean spirited development at all.” Metropolis has begun its search for a new source of funding.

In an age of austerity, government’s role is not necessarily to fund all ongoing research projects, but to identify needs and support proposals with merit. These research initiatives may then go on to secure other sources of funding. With a limited pie to be divvied up, there is something to be said for supporting new and innovative projects, while letting older established initiatives draw on their networks to source new funding. Canada’s BERD gap is good example. HERD is healthy and hardy; BERD has been identified by the government as a pressing need. Stimulating BERD and BERD-HERD collaborations is a crucial part of FedDev Ontario, an initiative funded by the Government of Canada since 2009 to “help the southern Ontario economy mitigate and overcome regional and global economic challenges.” For instance, the Technology Development stream encourages non-profits and post-secondary institutions to partner up with the business sector to bridge the gap between technological innovation and the market. The program aims to “stimulate the development of new technologies and accelerate the commercialization of innovative ideas that have the potential to significantly impact southern Ontario’s economy.” Non-profits and post-secondary institutions must secure private funding for their proposal to qualify.

It remains to be seen whether these new attempts at stimulating BERD will have significant positive outcomes. Here, evidence is paramount. However, in an age of innovation, government too is tasked with innovating in its approaches to funding research; it should not shy away from bold new ideas.

Adina Serbanescu is co-Editor of the Public Policy and Governance Review. She is in the second year of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and received an Honours Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto. Her research interests include immigration, the labour market, and adult education and training.

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