Bonus for Canadian Science

The Canadian government is stepping in to help universities and research institutions defray the hefty overhead costs associated with major new science projects. Last week federal Finance Minister Paul Martin announced a $268 million outlay for future equipment awards provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), a $1.3 billion entity created in 1997 to rejuvenate labs in universities and research hospitals. The funds would be awarded competitively in support of infrastructure grants.

The money, part of an unusual minibudget unveiled in the run-up to a parliamentary election scheduled for 27 November, is the first direct federal outlay for overhead costs, which up to now have been met by a combination of provincial operating grants to universities and federal transfer payments for postsecondary education.

School administrators say it meets a desperate need. Big projects carry unreimbursed costs, as do individual investigator grants awarded by the country's three research granting councils, says Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan, which is building the Canadian Light Source, the country's biggest scientific project in 30 years. "Universities are often left with the obligation of finding money for matching programs or for meeting indirect costs," MacKinnon says. "It's imposing a very considerable burden." To fill the gap, administrators have traditionally looked to private donations and grants from provincial governments. But those sources are drying up, says Manuel Buchwald, chief of research at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The new pot of money is a response to those pressures. But it won't erase the problem. The money can't be used to support existing equipment or facilities, notes CFI president David Strangway, and it won't be given automatically to all future CFI infrastructure awardees. "There are a lot of interesting questions for us to resolve," says Strangway. For example, he says, CFI has yet to come up with a good definition of indirect costs, and it's still debating whether small replacement facilities should get overhead funding.

University officials say they welcome the support but note that the new fund only scratches the surface of what is needed. They hope that a victory by the governing Liberals, who have a commanding 20% to 25% lead in the polls, will lead to additional support for the cost of academic research.

Related site

Canada Foundation for Innovation