Budget 2010: Much ado about nothing

Although Flaherty announces a scattering of new investments in research, his budget is underwhelming

After listening to governor general Michaëlle Jean deliver Wednesday’s Speech from the Throne, one would be forgiven for getting excited about a budget that promised to deliver new funds for research. “[The government] will expand the opportunities for our top graduates to pursue post-doctoral studies and to commercialize their ideas,” Jean said. “To fuel the ingenuity of Canada’s best and brightest and bring innovative products to market, our Government will build on the unprecedented investments in Canada’s Economic Action Plan by bolstering its Science and Technology Strategy.”

Related: Budget 2010: Why don’t you get a job?

Budget 2010: New post-doctoral grant

Sure, the government has aggressively directed funding at scientific, medical and technological research that have obvious economic or health benefits at the expense of basic and the “soft sciences,” but at least Prime Minister Stephen Harper and finance minister Jim Flaherty recognize that research is key in producing innovative ideas, bolstering the economy and creating jobs. Right?

But when Flaherty rose to speak in the House of Commons Thursday, his pledges in regard to research were, like the rest of the budget, underwhelming. The government announced a $32 million annual boost to the three research granting councils. However, considering that last year’s budget brought in a $43 million cut for 2010-11, they are still left $11 million short.

Similarly, Genome Canada—a non-profit set up by government to conduct leading research in genomics—received $75 million “to launch a new targeted research competition focused on forestry and the environment and sustain funding for the regional genomics innovation centres.” But lest we forget that this time last year Genome Canada was completely shut out of the 2009 budget, although it was expecting funding in the $120 million range. Three months after the funding announcement Genome Canada pulled out of a major Canadian-led program to map the genetic circuitry of stem cells.

The Throne Speech did accurately forecast the continued direction of the government’s approach to research; as has been typical in recent budgets, the so-called “hard sciences”—science, technology, engineering and medicine—are seen as the most important drivers of economic growth. The National Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students strongly criticized this approach: “Despite a majority of graduate students being enrolled in the humanities and social sciences, this budget allocated a mere $3 million to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), compared to $16 million for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and $13-million to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council,” it stated in a release.

“Innovation is at the heart of Canada’s future economic success. To meet its own goals the government needs to invest in the basic and curiosity-driven research that fuels the innovation engine,” spokesperson Andrea Balon said.

Graduate students are not the only ones making this argument. A report authored by Impact Group suggested that industries that rely primarily on social science and humanities knowledge account for 75 per cent of jobs in Canada, and that this research influences $389 billion in economic activity, close to the $400 billion from hard science industries.

The Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC), the lobby group for universities, was more positive in its response. In a statement titled “Budget investments in university research a ‘strategic choice’,” the AUCC said it was “pleased” with the investments. “This budget sends an important signal,” said Paul Davidson, AUCC president and CEO. ”It shows that the government recognizes the vital role universities play in creating opportunities for Canadians in the new economy.”

The budget also puts money aside for $135 million to the National Research Council to support 11 regional technology clusters. Another $397 million over five years went to the Canadian Space Agency. $126 million was earmarked for the TRIUMF facility where nuclear and particle physics research occurs.

Perhaps the most heralded research announcement of the day was $45 million over five years for new post-doctoral fellowships that will attract talented researchers to Canada. The program will establish 140 fellowships annually, valued at $70,000 per year for two years each. This is all fine and good, but let’s put it into context. As Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells notes in his analysis, “It’s also about one-third (in any given average year) of the $87.5 million over three years the 2009 budget allocated to Canada Graduate Scholarships. They’re different programs, but you see the difference in scale.”

These are all worthwhile investments; but the piecemeal approach to funding research (a little space technology here, a scattering of physics research there) suggests that Flaherty is not acting out a larger vision of how research and innovation will help us out of the recession. At least as it relates to research funding, the Conservative government is not “leading the way on jobs and growth”—as the title of Budget 2010 proclaims—but treading water.