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Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

Finance Minister Joe Oliver shows off his new shoes on the eve of the budget announcement—buying "budget shoes" is an annual tradition for Canadian finance ministers.

Finance Canada

Canadian research councils get a rain check from Harper government

Call them deferred olive branches.

In the run-up to a national election later this year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has been dispensing peace offerings to those who have become aggrieved by the conservatives since they first took office in 2006. The recipients include veterans, seniors, families with children, and all other manner of voting bloc. Now, Canadian researchers, who in recent years have generally vilified Harper as being antiscience and anti-intellectual, have joined the queue. But they will have to wait a while longer to begin enjoying their peace offerings.

Yesterday, Finance Minister Joe Oliver unveiled a 2015 to 2016 financial blueprint in which honoring a commitment to balance the budget takes precedence over immediate goodies for science. The deferred list includes a new, $1.08 billion competition by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation for research infrastructure grants to begin 3 years down the road, as well as modest funding toward buying a 15% to 20% stake in the colossal Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to be built in a dormant Hawaii volcano by 2024.

The nation’s three granting councils, which fund academic research, will see their combined $2.13 billion budgets remain flat this year. However, $41 million of a 10-year, $1.22 billion Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in the 2014 to 2015 fiscal plan will start to flow into their coffers to bolster the capacity of universities to “create long-term economic advantages for Canada.”

The councils are in line to receive a combined bump of $37 million in the next budget cycle, covering fiscal year 2016 to 2017. But even that modest growth will come with a lot of strings attached. Some $8.1 million of the $12.2 million funding boost for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which now receives $814 million, will be “directed to collaborations between companies and researchers from universities and colleges under the new consolidated suite of similar business innovation programs.” Priority areas include natural resources and energy, advanced manufacturing, environmental science, and agriculture. The rest of the money, the budget notes, “will be directed to industry-driven research initiatives at Canada’s polytechnics and colleges through the College and Community Innovation Program.”

Similarly, some $10.6 million of a $12.2 million increase starting next year in the $782-million-a-year budget of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is pegged for health care efficiency and effectiveness research, with the rest focused on “the health challenges posed by anti-microbial resistant infections.” Meanwhile, a future $5.7 million increase for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which now receives $537 million, is strictly for collaborations between academic researchers, businesses, and other partners toward what the budget calls “research and knowledge mobilization in the social sciences and humanities.”

The new budget maintains the government’s strategy of redirecting the nation’s scientific enterprise toward commercialization. That means the competition for basic operating grants will become ever more fierce and anarchic.

Canada’s participation in the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, is also seen as a boon to industrial development. Some $19.5 million of Canada’s $198 million contribution to the telescope will be used in the coming fiscal year for “the design, construction and assembly of key telescope components, including a precision-steel enclosure and cutting-edge adaptive optics technologies.”

The latest budget also continues the government’s propensity to toss large pots of money at specific disciplines and groups, often without peer review. It will funnel $34 million over 5 years to Toronto-based Baycrest Health Sciences to establish a Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation. But that outlay for dementia research falls well short of those announced in recent years by the United States and the United Kingdom and even lags Canada’s promise at the G8 dementia summit 2 years ago in London to significantly ramp up its investment in research on neurodegenerative diseases as part of a global bid to find a cure for dementia by 2025.

Other science outlays included $46 million over 4 years to create 1500 industrial internships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows within Canadian business, $49 million toward the transformation of the National Research Council into what officials call a “toolbox” for industry, and a commitment to extend Canadian participation in the International Space Station mission to 2024. But no dollar amount was attached. “The Canadian Space Agency will engage with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to define the terms of this continued participation,” the budget explains.