Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In these troubled times...

I've been committing adultery on this blog, by which I mean I will soon be writing a blog for the research institute where I work. However, being a public institution, they made me promise I wouldn't talk about politics on that blog and stick to science. So as long as there are still politics, I will still feel the need to rip on policy in this space.

Take the new federal budget, for example. Now, I'm not going to talk about Harper's bold-faced lie last fall that there would be no deficit for Canada this fiscal year. Nor will I rail on the other parties for not pushing the Government hard enough to create a great budget. No, here I'm going to stick with the science part of the budget, particularly the health research part. Because I hate it.

Shocking, I know.

The CBC generously refers to the budget as a "mixed bag" for science. The best news is the $2 billion to repair and expand existing facilities. Working in labs that don't have a) water dripping on experiments from pipes above, b) ceilings falling on machines worth a quarter-million dollars, and c) luxuries like proper ventilation and working temperature controls will be highly beneficial for Canadian science. This infrastructure spending will also help create jobs through construction projects, many of which will also be funded through the $1 billion the government is giving for green energy and the $750 million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which offer key grant competitions for institutions needing to upgrade equipment and research infrastructure.

Other perks in the budget include some $87.5 million for new scholarships for students - although Science magazine reports that "an unspecified chunk" will go to business-related degrees. There's $351 million for Atomic Energy of Canada, which is probably overdue seeing as how Harper fired the head of the Nuclear Safety commission last year when she deemed the Chalk River reactor was unsafe, and another $110 million or so for the Canadian Space Agency - Marc Garneau's presence in Parliament makes it hard to keep cutting that program.

What most of the budget wonks don't say is that the feds are only providing about half of the promised $2 billion in infrastructure spending here - universities will be expected to raise the other half through municipal and provincial governments and potentially even private or corporate investors. Which means that some of that cash may never show up, particularly for small universities in "have-not" provinces that are struggling as it is.

The bad news doesn't end there. The budget also shaves about $150 million from the main Canadian funding agencies - CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. This is close to a 10% hammering, and will only serve to shave down the already outrageous odds of winning a grant. They are also gutting the funding for Genome Canada, which is a brilliant project that brings the cutting edge of genetics research techniques to universities across Canada. They are a major supporter of the provincial genome projects, some of which - such as Génome Québec - are extremely successful in their own right. While they had already been promised about $240 million over 4 years, the current budget allots them absolutely nothing. Not a sausage.

Now, in these troubled economic times, yadda yadda yadda. In these troubled times, the US is injecting some US$3.5 billion to their National Institutes of Health alone; and tens of billions more for other science organizations. Note this not a reduction in spending or in grant money, which is what Canada seems to think was the right thing to do. A mere 5% of the $3.75 billion set aside for infrastructure and such would provide for all of the money being cut from the granting agencies.

It's nice to have renovated labs, but if there's no grant money with which to fill those labs, these billions in infrastructure expenditures are little better than federal make-work projects. Frankly - particularly here in Quebec - the money might be better spent on the roads.

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