While I am as concerned as anyone about the total amount of money allocated to the Tri-Councils and related agencies in the recent Canadian federal budget, I am more worried about another trend — the threat to peer decision making at the highest levels of grant making.
I suspect this kind of thing might also be happening elsewhere and perhaps my thoughts on this Canadian example will give you new questions to ask of your own government’s funding machinations.
In Canada we have 3 federal research granting agencies: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Social Science and Humanities Research Council, and Canadian Institutes for Health Research. These are referred to collectively as the Tri-Councils. Much of what I argue here applies to all three. I will specifically refer to SSHRC in my examples as it is the council I know best.
Here is the relevant section of the Budget Plan. (my emphasis)
Economic Action Plan 2012 proposes $37 million annually to enhance the granting councils’ support for industry-academic research partnership initiatives.
The federal granting councils support outstanding research and advanced training at post-secondary institutes and research hospitals. The granting councils have been increasing their focus on partnerships between post-secondary researchers and companies to target research to business needs and transfer knowledge into economic advantage.
The granting councils will be pursuing operational efficiencies and reallocation of funding from lower-priority programs to generate savings. The Government will fully reinvest 2012–13 savings in priority areas of the granting councils, particularly in industry-academic partnerships.
Specifically, Economic Action Plan 2012 proposes $37 million annually starting in 2012–13 to the granting councils to enhance their support for industry-academic research partnership initiatives. The new resources for the councils will be allocated as follows:
- $15 million per year to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for its Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research.
- $15 million per year to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for its Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation.
- $7 million per year to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for its industry-academic partnership initiatives.
On the money question, the budget is very clear that this is a “reinvestment” of $37 million ($7 million of which is for SSHRC), which is political-speak for “the budget will stay the same”. And yet, there is a clear direction here to reallocate that budget to “priority areas” with a particular focus on “industry-academic partnerships”. That paragraph I’ve put in red seems to be the key to what is going on.
Unlike in previous years there is no splash about “new money for research on ______” which masks an underlying freeze of the core budget. But a defacto cut to that core budget is being obfuscated by a headline “reinvestment” and some rather vague “redirection”.
Who decides the priorities for University-based research?
The Tri-Councils (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) are arms-length agencies of the federal government. This means that while they are publicly funded and report to a federal minister (Industry in the case of SSHRC and NSERC, Health for CIHR) they have considerable latitude about how they achieve that mandate.
Decisions about specific programs and how the budget is allocated between them are made by the governing council of the agency. That governing council is appointed by government but (for the research granting councils) has been made up of senior academics and others with direct experience of university-based research. In other words, the decisions about allocation of funds between investigator driven and strategic priorities are made by peers.
There was a bit of a public outcry about the appointment of a pharmaceutical company executive to CIHR’s council a few years ago which drew attention to the importance of those decisions being made by those who have a deep practical understanding of university-based research, particularly basic, investigator-driven research. But there has been less public outcry about a slower shift in the decision making that has been happening over the past several years.
Starting about 15 years ago and continuing under both Liberal and Conservative governments, the core budget of the Tri-Councils (the part that the governing councils allocate) has been basically frozen. All new money for research has come with various strings attached.
Two types of string
Some of that money was allocated to the councils with a priority area specified: The Initiative on the New Economy, funding for research on Northern and Environmental issues, funding for business research, etc. These appear in the SSHRC program descriptions as Priority Areas (although not all priority areas were decided in this way; funds for Aboriginal Research were allocated by SSHRC’s council to this strategic area).
The council still decides what types of programs — large collaborative or smaller individual grants, for example — and how the overall budget for that priority area will be divided between those programs. Peer adjudicators have substantial input into how the relevance of particular proposals to the priority area is determined.
While those programs generally have more stringent requirements for knowledge mobilization, and perhaps even some funds allocated to Public Outreach grants, the bulk of the money is used to fund investigator driven research in the priority areas. In fact, the recent program architecture changes at SSHRC have meant that adjudication of applications for these funds is fully integrated with other investigator driven grant applications. (See my post on Priority Areas for an explanation of how this works.)
The primary effect of attaching this kind of string to funding has been on the proportion of all research funds spent in particular areas. A secondary effect has been to increase the attention paid to knowledge mobilization to non-academic audiences.
Over the same period, there have been funds which appear to be part of the Tri-Council budgets from the perspective of applicants but which are really only administered by the Tri-Councils.
The Canada Graduate Scholarships program is one example of this type. Everything down the the amount of the scholarship to be awarded was decided outside of the councils. All they do is run a peer review process to award the scholarships to students. This created all kinds of issues in relation to the relative value of CGS awards compared to doctoral awards funded from SSHRC’s core budget, as well as issues of where the award could be held.
Canada Research Chairs, Canada Research Excellence Chairs, the Vanier scholarships, and the Bombardier scholarships are also examples of this kind of funding.
The funds for these programs are administered by the Tri-Councils and are thus reported in their annual financial reporting but are not really under the control of their governing councils in the same way as other funds.
Success rates drop as “new funds” are announced
During these years each budget announcement seems to bring glad tidings of increased investment in university-based research. And yet success rates drop in what researchers consider the main granting programs — SSHRC’s Standard Research Grant (now Insight), NSERC’s Discovery Grant, and CIHR’s Operating Grant.
These programs are all funded from the core budget which has remained about stable through this period, and even saw as small drop a few years ago under program review. The costs of research have not remained stable, being subject to inflation just like anything else. Add in the increased demand for grant funding, fueled in part by the squeeze on other parts of the higher education budget (allocated provincially, just to make matters even more complicated for non-Canadian readers) and you have more people asking for more money from the same size pot that was there 15 years ago.
What’s new and troubling in 2012?
In this budget there are no announcements of “new funds” to distract us from a frozen core budget. Instead we have a “reinvestment” of the amount everyone in the sector is familiar with. Sighs of relief all around. No cuts.
Read more closely though, and we see that there are cuts. The “savings” will be “reinvested” to maintain the overall budget.
It is no longer just the additional funds which come with strings. The federal government is now exerting more control over the funds in the core budget. Naming the basic programs, the programs that researchers value most, as “low-priority”. Instructing the councils to redirect funds from those “low-priority” programs to “priority areas”. And further indicating that these funds should be spent on “industry-academic partnerships”.
This significantly reduces the role of the governing councils of the granting agencies in allocating funds and setting priorities for meeting the mandate. Considered alongside the concerns expressed by N. Ghoussoub about what is happening in related areas and how that might play out, academics should be very worried, not only about the level of funding for university research but also about the principle of peer decision-making.
This budget also continues a process whereby federal funds for research are directed to other non-university organizations. In the 2012 budget, it is the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a private non-profit organization, which receives such funding. These institutes do valuable and high quality academic research but, as N. Ghoussoub has pointed out in his post on the 2011 budget, the process by which they are selected as funding priorities circumvents “traditional practices for funding decisions through open competition and peer-review”.
Yes, at the level of awarding grants to individuals who have applied to specific programs at the Tri-Councils, the principle of peer review is alive and well. However, the peers who sit on those committees make their decisions based on program criteria decided by others. The governing council, made up largely of senior academics and others with direct experience of academic research, signs off on those program criteria. The amount of money over which they have this control is dwindling annually.
The implications of this are considerable but this post is already long.
HT to N. Ghoussoub who first alerted me to these issues in his March 31 post. He has since posted again on the subject. I recommend reading both. Like me, he focuses his examples on the council he has most direct experience and knowledge of, in his case NSERC.