Amid austerity, a boost for higher education and advanced research

4213-POVThe 2010 budget of the Government of Canada has struck a difficult balance in difficult times. It proposes to continue short-term stimulus spending, and introduces medium-term austerity measures, while sustaining long-term provincial transfers. It also welcomes global competition and reduces regulation in a range of economic spheres, even as it reinforces some domestic subsidies.

Universities and colleges have been big beneficiaries of the federal government’s infrastructure spending, but it could be argued that post-secondary education and research are rather small parts of this new balancing act.

Our view is different. As presidents of 13 research-intensive universities spanning the country, we read the budget with an eye on our sister institutions in the U.S. and U.K. The United States has boosted national R&D spending, but many states have slashed payments to universities, and the federal deficit is still growing at an unprecedented rate. In Britain, higher education will lose approximately $1.5 billion (Canadian) in government funding over the next three years, and massive layoffs are under way.

The maintenance of federal transfers to provinces in Budget 2010 is therefore critically important. In past debt-elimination drives, federal transfers to provinces were rapidly reduced. Provinces then passed the cuts on to universities and colleges, hospitals and municipalities. Budget 2010 reduces the chances that this adverse history will be repeated.

This budget has also given universities a clear signal to get on with the job of laying the foundations for a sustainable economic recovery. We welcome that signal and the support that goes with it in a period of tough choices.

By way of example, in the midst of wide-ranging austerity measures, the budget promises new funds for basic research through the granting councils and renewed support for research infrastructure. Continued operating and capital support for basic research will help universities and research hospitals support and retain our top scholars and students, and draw talent from other jurisdictions. Some focused investments are also anticipated for talent development. Here, Budget 2010 includes funding to attract top post-doctoral trainees and support the internationalization of graduate studies in Canada. These initiatives complement last year’s creation of the Vanier scholarships for top-tier graduate students and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs for outstanding scientists. These, too, are very positive initiatives.

The budget recognizes another point of concern to all universities and colleges: Canada’s well-known innovation gap. After all the reports on that problem, it is increasingly clear that the incentives for innovation are not well-aligned across the current array of federal and provincial mechanisms to promote new products, services and businesses. Canada already spends billions on government labs and agencies, R&D subsidies, and an array of specialized programs designed to support inventors and companies. Many observers believe that a major overhaul could lead to a stronger innovation system at lower cost. Furthermore, the resulting savings could be reinvested into the system to make more Canadian programs consistent with the practices adopted by other industrialized nations. We therefore warmly welcome Budget 2010’s promise of a national review of public R&D spending and are keen to contribute to it.

In conclusion, we know that others are already debating the merits of Budget 2010. Universities are hotbeds of critical thinking, and we can each advance our own criticisms of any budget. However, in the current climate of austerity, we think it is essential to acknowledge that in this budget, universities have been given important support to reinforce our core missions, along with some valuable new tools to help us advance on several strategic fronts. For that vote of confidence in higher education and advanced research, we are indeed grateful to the government and to Canada’s taxpayers.

Denis Brière, Recteur, Université Laval; Amit Chakma, President, University of Western Ontario; Peter George, President, McMaster University; David Johnston, President, University of Waterloo; Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal, McGill University; David Naylor, President, University of Toronto; Allan Rock, President, University of Ottawa; Indira Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta; Stephen J. Toope, President, University of British Columbia; Tom Traves, President, Dalhousie University; Warren Veale, Interim President, University of Calgary; Luc Vinet, Recteur, Université de Montréal; Daniel Woolf, Principal, Queen’s University.