By Neale McDevitt
With the tabling of the provincial budget in December 2012, the Marois government served notice that it would slash some $63 million in funding for environmental protection and health research. Many researchers felt betrayed, as the Parti Québécois had campaigned on a platform that promised to increase research funding to three per cent of the gross domestic product.
Last Wednesday, Higher Education Minister Pierre Duchesne and Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet announced that the government had changed its tune and was, in fact, going to inject $26.5 million back into the three funding agencies responsible for the environmental and health research portfolios.
But while some have touted the government’s backtracking as a victory of sorts, others are less impressed.
“From my perspective it’s not a victory at all,” says Armando Jardim, Director of the Centre for Host-Parasite Interactions in the Institute of Parasitology. “I think it’s the government getting a wake-up call that they need to reevaluate their actions. But we’re still going backwards.”
Backwards because there will still be a shortfall of some $36.5 million in funding for Quebec-based researchers beginning in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
The potential impact of these cuts is devastating. Less money for postdocs could mean more of them will seek greener pastures elsewhere, significantly reducing the next wave of Quebec researchers. Research centres may be downsized. Fewer new research projects might be undertaken and any number of current projects could be shut down. “These contractions could cut the legs out from under a lot of people,” says Vincent Gracco, Director of the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music.
“A significant part of our budget goes to technical personnel and we’re going to have to make some hard decisions,” Gracco says. “Are we going to keep all the personnel and not be able to do any of the other things that are essentially our mandate [including community outreach programs and the development of industry partnerships]? Or do we let people go and try and maintain the activities that we’re going to be evaluated on for our midterm review?
“Montreal has a very strong representation in the areas of language, music and neuroscience and our research center kind of triangulates all three. Graduate students want to come here to focus on learning about and getting research and expertise in these areas,” continues Gracco. “We feel like we help shine the light on Quebec but now it feels like someone has turned down the wattage of the bulb.”
Jardim calls the government-
imposed cuts “a knee-jerk reaction” and warns that it could have a domino effect of dangerous proportions.
“These cuts are stifling the ability of the elite scientists to play on the international field,” he says. “But these elite scientists always have the ability to leave. I think some individuals might just move to where their work receives better support. If the Quebec government isn’t careful we’re going to suffer a similar brain drain to that of the early 90s.”
“We keep hearing that Canada and Quebec are moving towards a knowledge-based economy. But how can you drive a knowledge-based economy without investing in higher learning research?” Jardim asks.
The silver lining in all this is that the government’s partial backtracking seems to have come largely as a result of public pressure.
Soon after the announcement of the initial cuts, scientists and researchers launched a campaign that included testimonials from cancer patients on the importance of experimental research, an open letter to the government signed by over 40 directors (including Jardim and Gracco) of Quebec research centres, and an online petition signed by over 11,000 people.
Although Jardim isn’t claiming victory just yet, he does think the experience has shown that the minority government is susceptible to public pressure.
“We need to mobilize ourselves, and I mean all of society – students, professors and laypeople – and we need to continue to put pressure on the government and say education and research are important.”