Canada Cuts Research Funding

Canadian scientists are afraid that the government's decision to cut funding to the main source of research grants will trigger a new brain drain to the United States.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled a budget yesterday aimed at pulling the country out of the global recession. Although reducing funding to three government councils that provide grants to scientists, the budget includes $1.62 billion over 2 years to retrofit aging academic buildings as part of a $10 billion investment in all manner of infrastructure. But scientists say that the economic stimulus package moving quickly through the U.S. Congress provides so much support for research that Canadian scientists once again will be tempted to cross the border, offsetting gains made over the past decade as a result of faculty-recruitment programs.

“That’s one of our worries,” says Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “You know how many people we attracted back with our Canada Research Chairs program. The flow can go both ways.”

Under the proposed budget, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will see their budgets collectively reduced by an aggregate $113 million over the next 3 years. A breakdown of the blow each council must individually absorb in each year was not made available. Currently, the councils' respective base budgets are $597 million, $577 million, and $202 million.

Harper's budget contains some initiatives that would cushion the blow to researchers, but they come with strings attached. It promises $488.5 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation to hold a research infrastructure competition by 2011, with the priority areas to be set by the federal industry minister. Similarly, it proposes to spend $71.2 million over 3 years for 500 new doctoral, and 1000 new master's, scholarships under the Canada Graduate Scholarships program. But an unspecified chunk of those will be set aside for “business-related degrees.”

“For a government that says we can’t pick winners and losers in the economy," says Jim Turk, head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, "it seems to sure be willing to pick winners and losers in research rather than letting scientists make those determinations through peer review.” The budget also contains $1.6 million for a “feasibility study” of a proposed national Arctic research station.