Canadian Science Budget Fails to Deliver

A record 900 recently minted scientists have applied for their first grants in the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's (NSERC) current competition for basic research operating awards.

Many of them are stamped with the imprimatur of rising stars, having been selected by their respective universities as recipients of Tier II Canada Research Chairs under a $600-million government program to rejuvenate the aging academy over the course of this decade ( Science , 22 October 1999, p. 651 and Science , 6 December 2002, p. 1879).

Yet, a decreasing portion of those newcomers to the grants game are likely to get a good start to their research careers as a result of Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's $157.12-billion blueprint, unveiled on 23 February under the soporific theme "Delivering on Commitments."

Supply and Demand

With the government having delivered altogether modest increases of less than five percent to the nation's granting councils--all but ignoring an oft-stated erstwhile commitment to double Canada's R&D effort by 2010--the inexorable laws of inadequate supply and skyrocketing demand are about to visit those new investigators.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) fared best in Goodale's blueprint, as its core grants budget rose $25.6 million to $560 million. On paper, NSERC got a similar $25.6 million hike to $548 million, while the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) core budget rose $8.8 million to $125.6 million.

But a parallel government-wide, $9.6-billion exercise in reallocation and waste-cutting hit agencies differently, so NSERC and SSHRC were asked simultaneously to absorb $8-million and $2.88-million blows. The net effect is that their respective budgets will rise by only $17.6 million and $5.9 million.

NSERC's President Tom Brzustowski says grant selection committees will face a stiff challenge in weighing the need to give new investigators a foot in the door and ensuring that established, proven researchers can maintain their productivity.

A mere 300 seasoned scientists who'd traditionally fit within the current funding cycle retired their Bunsen burners this year, creating a situation in which just over 2200 veterans are seeking renewals or new grants in competition with the 900 newcomers seeking first-time NSERC awards.

Anyone can read between those mathematical lines. They'll translate into a continuation of the downward trend in success rates for young scientists. Last year, approvals for new investigators declined five% to 69%. Brzustowski says it's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how that trend can be reversed in the face of the modest budget increases his agency received. Still, he holds out some hope for young investigators. "Different committees," he notes, "strike a different balance between giving the new people a good start and giving the continuing people good recognition."

A similarly grim forecast was being made at SSHRC, where president Marc Renaud says there's absolutely no chance that his agency can sustain a 43% approval rate, and where, like NSERC, the agency is also envisioning the trimming of training programs such as postdoctoral fellowships. "This is life," Renaud bluntly notes.

The paucity of increases in granting-council budgets creates a situation in which many young scientists will have to hope that their work falls within the ambit of other pots of money that the councils have available through strategic programs. Yet, on that score, the councils all say they'll protect their core operating grants at all costs, so strategic programs will likely be the first to be squeezed. Even at CIHR, where the budget increase topped that of its sister agencies, president Alan Bernstein says the growth rate of new strategic initiatives on clinical trials and regenerative medicine will likely have to be constrained. "The demand for funding, at every level, has just skyrocketed," Bernstein notes.

Other Pots: Slim and Specialized

Early career scientists will have to tap other, noncouncil pots of money that were established in the budget, but here, too, the pickings are slim and specialized. The possibilities include the $132-million appropriation for Genome Canada, extended for 2 years while the government completes an assessment of long-term national genomics needs ( Science , 10 March 2000, p. 1732), such as the $178-million, 5-year allocation for operations and construction at the Vancouver-based TRI University Meson Facility; and the $160-million, 5-year Sustainable Energy Science and Technology. The government says a portion of that latter pot will be available for university research, but not until 2007 at the earliest. A blue-ribbon panel of experts will be appointed first to develop, by December 2006, a strategic research plan "around the efficient production and use of conventional and renewable energy."

Canadian Association of University Teachers executive-director Jim Turk argues that such initiatives are but small forms of consolation for young scientists who'd hoped the government might see fit to provide the councils with adequate monies to ensure that new investigators are properly supported as they launch their careers.

"We are very disappointed in this budget," Turk says. "It's clear that, for this minority government, research and postsecondary education is not a priority. It really is a sad day. This is a budget put together by committee, with a little bit here and little bit there, with nothing well thought out."

But Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada president Claire Morris says the picture is rosier than many suggest. The modest increases in the budgets of the granting councils "may not meet total demand because one of the things that's happened on the university campuses is that it's such an invigorated culture right now that we're attracting all kinds of new researchers. I think the granting councils would probably say that they won't be able to meet all the demand. But I know what Finance will say is that: 'Look, in this day and age, with all the competing requests, to have that level of increase is still pretty good.' "

Wayne Kondro writes from Ottawa.

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