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Mostly a 'good news' budget
| Finance minister Paul Martin's latest federal budget has been drawing decidedly mixed reviews from the country's university community.
"If this millennial budget was supposed to propel Canada into the coming century, it has sadly come up short," says Jason Aebig, national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.
"It is the best budget in over a decade for our cause," says University of Toronto president Robert Prichard.
Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger falls somewhere in the middle in his assessment. "I think, in general, it's a 'good news' budget. Of course, you always wish for more."
The budget offered some welcome items — a tax break for many students, a big boost in funding for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the creation of 2,000 new research chairs for professors over the next five years and some new programs that will benefit university-based researchers.
The disappointing news, in the eyes of many, is the government's decision to make a one-time-only injection of $2.5 billion to the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). CHST money goes to the provinces and is generally used to fund health care, post-secondary education and social programs. In presenting the budget, Martin urged the provinces to use the money for health care and higher education.
But given the severe cuts to these areas over the past decade, critics charge that $2.5 billion won't make much of a dent.
"What appears to be extra money for spending is really a smoke screen to hide unprecedented tax cuts that will prevent the government from maintaining Canada's public health and education systems," says Bill Graham, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "This is only a one-time increase that does not address the on-going crisis in funding."
"We would like to have seen a greater transfer of funds to the CHST with higher education labelled as a priority," adds Bélanger.
For his part, Robert Giroux, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, says his member institutions "will now look to provincial governments to use this increase to enhance the core operating budgets of Canadian universities."
The CFI, which supports research infrastructure costs at universities in concert with provincial governments and private partners, will receive an additional $900 million, bringing its total budget up to $1.9 billion. The program has been extended by three years to 2005.
Hundreds of millions of dollars will go towards the creation of the 21st Century Chairs of Research Excellence program, a bid by the feds to help universities cope with both the retirement crunch and the brain drain.
"To us, this could mean about 160 new positions," says Bélanger.
Universities will earn chairs roughly on the basis of their success in securing grants from the three main granting agencies — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (which will allot 45 per cent of the new chairs), the Medical Research Council (35 per cent) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (20 per cent). 21st Century Chairs will be awarded and renewed on a peer review basis.
Bélanger says there will be two types of chairs, one for promising junior researchers, the other for established stars in mid-career.
Bélanger says Ottawa is encouraging universities "to give these chairs to top people they really want to keep or to use them to attract people from outside the country."
Bélanger is also pleased by the boost to CFI. "It's necessary in light of the chairs program," he notes. No sense in hiring all those top researchers if you can't provide them with the labs and equipment they'll need to do their work.
The CAUT's Graham says he is uncomfortable with how much of the money available to universities comes with corporate strings attached; CFI support, for instance, is often contingent on universities securing corporate support since the feds only foot part of the bill and only send money if universities can prove that they'll earn additional support from other partners.
Bélanger predicts that securing the required 20 per cent in matching funds from business sector partners for CFI grants will become "increasingly difficult."
"After two rounds [of CFI applications], there is a certain amount of corporate fatigue. You can't go to the well too often.
"We're also hoping that the Quebec government keeps supporting this. Quebec has been putting a lot of money into this, but the feds are getting the credit."
University professors will have access to new sources of research funding. The new Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences will create a network among experts at climate science institutes and universities across Canada and supply grants to scientists.
Five new genome science centres, one to be located in Quebec, will provide lab services to university researchers, better coordinate the genomic research going on in the country and support new studies into the social, ethical and legal issues related to the field.
Chances are good that McGill will play a leading role in the Quebec genome centre. "That's already well in the works," Bélanger says.
The government will also be creating the new Sustainable Development Technology Fund which will have $100 million to spend, in part, on supporting projects that develop new environmental technologies.
Bélanger is quick to name one area where the budget disappointed him.
"You're always hoping for the Holy Grail — support for the indirect costs of research."
The university community has been lobbying different levels of government on this topic for a while now. "CFI puts a lot of new infrastructure into universities, but no new money to keep [the labs and equipment] going," says Bélanger.
With big ticket, hi-tech equipment, "you need programmers and technicians, you need maintenance contracts. There are a lot of things we're really struggling to pay for."
Noting that almost all CFI money goes towards research in the physical and medical sciences and that most of the new 21st Century Research Chairs are headed in that direction as well, Louise Forsyth, president of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada, expressed her frustration over how researchers in the social sciences and humanities aren't receiving much in the way of new support.
"I'm discouraged because the money is not there to support the research. I'm also discouraged because of the absence of recognition of the need for the research that's done by humanities and social sciences scholars.
"The other thing that discourages me is that I think that the way in which the federal government is choosing to fund research is seriously skewing the agenda of universities across the country," Forsyth added.
Martin also announced that the federal government will raise the amount of scholarship, fellowship and bursary income that a student can receive tax-free from $500 to $3,000.
CASA's Aebig hails the move, adding, "But these income measures will mean little — and benefit few — if efforts are not made to control the increasing costs of a Canadian post-secondary education."