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New science policy
A new Quebec policy on science and innovation may change the landscape of university research funding.
The policy, unveiled by the Minister of Research, Science and Technology Jean Rochon in late January, is an explicit recognition by the government that it is increasingly counting on research to drive the economy.
The policy promises fresh funding for a broad range of research areas -- not just the high tech and biotechnology sectors.
"We thought it was important, when crafting this policy, to recognize innovation in all fields," Rochon said in an interview last week. "High tech gets a lot more attention and funding, and we feel it is time to address that imbalance."
The policy states that government agencies with a research mandate will be directed to support research in all areas, from the humanities to engineering, and encourage technological, social and organizational innovation.
"In a time of rapid technological change, we can't forget that our social institutions have to keep up with that pace. We need equally rapid innovation in fields like the social sciences to help our society deal with a constant state of upheaval."
Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet welcomes such talk. "There is a big imbalance" between funding in high tech and in areas like the humanities and social sciences, he says. "For example, humanities and social sciences are getting 20 per cent of the Canada Research Chairs, while the rest go to medical research, and science and engineering.
"Some of the imbalance can be attributed to higher costs for equipment, but on the level of operating costs, the numbers could be brought much closer together."
Another key priority for the new Quebec policy is freeing professors' schedules to allow them more time to devote to research. Specifically, the policy promises a budgetary envelope to allow reduced teaching duties for professors involved in research -- which, at a university like McGill, is all of them.
Rochon says that this could be accomplished by hiring more professors and TAs.
Vinet suggests that another solution would be to hire more non-academic staff.
"Since the budget cuts began, we've lost support staff as well as faculty members. As a result, our faculty members have been forced to do more administrative duties. Even if they did not have to teach more courses, many of them also had more students per class, while getting less administrative support."
Vinet points out that McGill's student to staff ratio has worsened since 1994, when the cuts began, from 15-1 to 19-1.
The new policy also addresses a persistent complaint of Canadian university researchers: insufficient funding for indirect costs associated with research, which account for 40 per cent of total research expenses. That will be welcome relief, says Vinet.
"Research-related costs which are not directly visible -- providing electricity, heating, space, installing new phone jacks and electrical outlets, etc. -- are not included in estimates of the costs of running an experiment or setting up a research facility. In Canada, the policy has been that these costs will be incurred by universities, through their operating budgets.
"In a research-intensive university like McGill, this can get very expensive."
Vinet points out that the old policy gave an advantage to American institutions, because their indirect costs are always covered by funding. The new policy pledges that government research grants from Quebec funding agencies will include an additional 40 per cent for indirect costs.
In terms of overall funding, the policy paper offers few specific figures, but Rochon says that it does point the way toward a large scale reinvestment in R&D.
"Quebec currently invests two per cent of its GDP in research. Our overall target with this policy is to attain -- in terms of collective effort between government, the private sector and research institutions -- the average level of R&D spending of G7 countries, which is approximately 2.45 per cent.
"So a lot of details will have to be worked out, but this policy gives us a strong direction and an important goal."