Canadian Budget Targets Brain Research, But Critics See Political Motives

A private foundation's brain research initiative would receive significant government support in a new budget unveiled yesterday by Canada's minority Conservative Party. But that approach to research is exactly what's wrong with the 2011-2012 budget, say its critics: New investments are reserved for large, targeted ventures with political clout, while investigator-driven basic science continues to be squeezed.

Tory leaders hope that their fiscal blueprint, which provides an overall increase of less than 1% in a $284 billion budget, contains just enough goodies to somehow prevent political opponents from blowing it out of the water and plunging Canada into a general election. But all three opposition party leaders attacked it, including New Democrat Jack Layton, who many had thought was looking for a way to avoid an election. Layton says his party "will not be supporting this budget" and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper "just doesn't get it."

The big winner for research in the new budget is Brain Canada, a nonprofit foundation with plans to create a Canada Brain Research Fund. The Canadian government will contribute up to $101.8 million to match monies raised by the organization and its partners. The foundation, which has already made small grants to several research groups, was created last year in a restructuring of a charitable foundation that emerged from the ashes of a national network of research centers that had lost its government funding over a decade ago. The government's promise will allow it to scale up support of collaborative, multidisciplinary, and multi-institutional teams chosen through an open competition. A massive investment in neurosciences is justified given that brain diseases are now a $61-billion-per-year drain on Canada's health care system, says the organization's president, Inez Jabalpurwala.

But Canadian Association of University Teachers Executive Director James Turk disagrees with the government's decision. "What we're seeing is the importation of the National Hockey League model of how you build quality, [to] hire some star and give them huge bucks. That seems to be how this government thinks you build good universities," says Turk. "But in sports, you build a successful team by having a really good farm system and providing opportunities for young athletes to grow and develop their skills and come up through the ranks. That's [also] how you build good universities. You have good granting [opportunities] for young, bright Ph.D.s and postdocs and you let them flourish."

Such criticisms were directed in part to the presence on the foundation's board of several political heavyweights, including the former Conservative finance minister, Michael Wilson, as honorary chair. But Jabalpurwala dismissed suggestions that political considerations played any role. "We've spent over 10 years building this case. We're not an overnight success story," she says. "Anyone who thinks we just pulled a rabbit out of a hat because we got a couple of business people [with government experience] is just absolutely ridiculous."

Meanwhile, 2011 looks to be another lean year for the country's three research granting councils. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says that the base budgets of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will rise by $15.2 million, $15.2 million, and $7.1 million, respectively. But that $37.5 million increase doesn't come close to offsetting an $86.1 million collective hit this year to the councils as a result of restraint measures announced in 2009. The councils' respective budgets for 2011-12 will be roughly $1.001 billion, $1.02 billion, and $663 million, respectively. But about 25% of that total for the medical and natural sciences, and about 45% of the social sciences, is not available for competitive grants. Instead, the money is earmarked for special programs like the one to cover the indirect costs of research.

Other research-related initiatives in the new budget would set aside $54.4 million over 5 years to create 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, some of which will be aimed at information and communications technologies as part of a "Digital Economy Strategy" to be unveiled later this spring. NSERC will again oversee the competition, which in its first iteration gave $10 million apiece over 7 years to 19 scientists.

The budget would hold steady support for the $66-million-a-year Genome Canada, which Flaherty said plans to conduct a new competition "in the area of human health." The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics will continue to receive roughly $10 million annually for another 5 years, starting in 2013. NSERC will also oversee a major push to promote applied research within the nation's 150 colleges and institutes of technology with the creation of 30 "industrial research chairs." The initiative would be launched with $3 million in 2011-12, rising to $5.1 million in subsequent years.