The new Canadian Federal budget is in, the one we’ve been waiting for since the Governor General agreed to progrogue parliament. There’s spending galore, aimed at stimulating the economy by creating jobs and building infrastructure. There are tax breaks for middle and low income earners. So in some ways I’m cheering – this should in theory lead to a bit more money in my pocket.
I am, however, shocked.
At a time when the US government is newly interested in advancement of sciences, and money looks ready to flood into genomics and stem cell research, our Canadian government has significantly cut funding. To the tune of something like $140 million. The major non-government granting agency Genome Canada receives its base funding from the government, and has done so for nine years. Other funds come in, but they are typically co-funding, matching resting on the assurance of government money. It funds basic research in health, agriculture, fisheries, and a few other areas related to genomics. Their operating grants are the Big Ones, the ones that fund international collaborations and large-scale medical research. It supports cutting-edge research that makes Canada stand apart. Recall SARS? The sequence for that lovely bug came out in record time from a GC centre, Genome BC. That’s just one tiny little piece of what they do, and the one that stands out in my mind. Huge cancer research, developmental biology research, pathogen research goes on in labs funded by this agency. And yet where they should have been in the budget, where they have been in the budget for almost a decade, there is no mention. There was no warning.
Was it a $140 million oversight? A slip-up? I find that hard to believe. A message to Canada of the perceived worth of science in the eyes of this government? Perhaps not a deliberate one, but yes. In a way. Whatever the root, the result is still the same. $140 million isn’t even a large amount when you look at the entire budget – it’s small peanuts. But to the people whose work and families are supported by Genome Canada, and to the people whose lives will be directely affected – perhaps improved – by the reasearch, you can bet it’s not peanuts.
It’s short sighted to say the least. Not only are, from what I’ve read, over 2000 jobs on the line because of this (wasn’t this budget supposed to save jobs, not cut them?) but research projects don’t tend to be carried out and completed in a year’s worth of funding. What I mean is, ongoing research will be affected by this, research supported already for some time is being thrown down the drain.
The bigger picture is alarming to me, though. A country that does not invest in basic science is, in my opinion, in dire trouble. Advancements made by just Genome Canada alone have helped to make this a country well respected for its quality research. Does this cut constitute ‘not investing’? Not exactly, but it is a drastic reduction to funding that covers a broad range of genomics-related research. Sure, CIHR and NSERC will still be around, but those are government agencies, and will they get a big cash infusion to compensate?
I’ve heard and read some ridiculous things today about this. One commenter on the Globe and Mail essentially wrote that the researchers should suck it up and find jobs in the private sector. Yes, that is one solution, though those positions are limited. A more likely scenario is that researchers will move south, where interest and funding is apparently on the rise in the areas affected the most by this cut. Another comment implied that GC was crying because they didn’t get a bonus hand-out. They were expecting some money, with no reason to expect otherwise (and funding doesn’t normally just get yanked like this, there are committees and investigations), and got none. “Everyone has to tighten their belts, these are tough times,” I have heard too. This isn’t just dropping off excess baggage, or restricting raises. This is, “Make do with what’s in your bank account now, nothing else is coming,” at a time when the government is spending, spending, spending.
Now, a little bit to take the edge off of this. It’s not like researchers are going to get sent home tomorrow from their projects. That’s not how this works. Generally as I understand it organizations like this are working with at least a three year margin. The researchers funding is usually for one year, the granting agency has next year’s money set to divvy up, and are finalizing the following year’s. So they can probably regroup, cut back, allocate funds where absolutely necessary. However, some areas are already bracing for early effects. The government does assure that researchers will not get less money … but how exactly this will work is not clear and in my view untrustworthy.
It’s still bad news. Things don’t look good for the next few years for research in Canada.
Update next day: The government is arguing that GC has funding in place, contracts with the government, and they will continue to honour those contracts. That money is allocated, already earmarked for research projects. Funding they should have recieved in this budget would go towards new projects, would be available for future funding. Don’t be fooled by the spin the Minister is giving. Of course they already have funds in place for the next few years, that is how these agencies function. An agency that supplies $10M grants doesn’t operate hand-to-mouth, hanging on each budget for immediate funds. This will affect new, future research. This also means that there is room for the government to ammend this oversight which they are frantically trying to cover up.