Federal government's research funding scheme is wasteful: researchers

The federal government is squandering taxpayer money by building research infrastructure without providing enough funding to operate it, researchers argued this week.

The federal government is squandering taxpayer money by building research infrastructure without providing enough funds to operate it and by not renewing funding to areas where it has built expertise, a panel of researchers argued this week.

"Infrastructure without associated operational funding is wasteful," University of Alberta researcher Ryan McKay told colleagues at a national meeting of university professors in Ottawa on Thursday.

The other panelists who spoke about research funding at the Canadian Association of University Teachers' national council meeting were W. Richard Peltier, a University of Toronto physics professor and Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University.

McKay and Peltier praised the government for providing $750 million for scientific research funding through the Canadian Foundation of Innovation through to 2010 and $2 billion over two years for university infrastructure in the latest budget.

However, McKay expressed concerns that because the grants cover only a fraction of operating costs for a limited number of years, the facilities will not reach their potential, something he said he has seen happen at the University of Alberta.

"The Institute for Biomedical Design was literally half a floor of one building where the equipment was put in and it sat in plastic for months, if not more than a year … while people tried to get the operational grants," he said.

McKay recounted that is own facility has seen a number of its government grants eliminated in the past few years.

"We're basically holding on by our fingernails and we're running out of fingernails," he said, adding that the centre has been forced to hike the rates that researchers pay to use its equipment.

Universities requested infrastructure: Industry Canada

He suggested that infrastructure has been the government's focus because it provides for easy photo-ops and visible, defined results.

Industry Canada said Friday that spent on research infrastructure because consultations with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada provided a "compelling case" for such investments. The department added that it has provided some programs, such as the Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research, with operating costs, and for others it has provided $325 million for indirect costs of research.

However, McKay said, funding from "indirect costs" is not trickling down to researchers.

He and his fellow panelists also criticized the government for not renewing funding to research areas that have been productive and successful, something Peltier spoke about at length.

"This cuts right to the heart of many of the projects which Canada has been actually leading in," he said. "We shouldn't cut the things we do best."

As examples, Peltier pointed to:

  • The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS), an agency that distributed government funding to groups such as the University of Toronto's Centre for Climate Change Studies, where Peltier is director. 
  • Genome Canada, which did not get $120 million that it had expected in the 2009 federal budget to help fund new international research projects, including those led by Canadian scientists.

Peltier said CFCAS, an autonomous foundation established in 2000 that bills itself as the "main funding body for university-based research on climate, atmospheric and related oceanic work in Canada," has been supporting important research to improve understanding of the global warming process.

"This is an extremely important thing and yet, this foundation is about to be killed."

Research teams take decades to build: Peltier

Peltier added that top research teams that take decades to build and just a short time to lose. He suggested that the government's current strategy of steering more research funding to areas it "is most comfortable with" was a contributing factor.

CFCAS executive director Dawn Conway confirmed Friday that the foundation gets nearly all its funding from the government, but it has not yet received a response to requests for renewal of its funding or extension of its mandate past March 2012.

Industry Canada said a five-year agreement already in place should fund Genome Canada through to March 2013, and earlier this week it announced $112 million for 12 genomics research projects in bioproducts or crops.

When the panel was asked when the government should stop funding a particular facility or area of science to make room for others, McKay said research projects should be funded until they are finished or have run their course. Facilities should be shut down, he said, when they have "reached the end of that area of science."

However, he said, the types of research that aren't getting their funding renewed right now do not fall into these categories.

"We're talking about places that are No. 1 on the peer review committees," he said. "That entire stream of funding has been removed, not because it's judged unworthy but because it's judged not important. And who gets to say whether it's important or not?"

Industry Canada said it takes advice on science technology and innovation from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, a group of  18 "distinguished Canadians" from the business, university, college, research and government sectors.

The department said the council is currently advising the government on how it should focus it research resources in four priority areas identified in 2007: environmental science and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies.