Budget's attacks on social and cultural research are short-sighted

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Opinion Editorial Regarding 2009 Federal Budget

The federal stimulus package introduced in January was historical on many fronts. In the field of university research, the federal government has taken a nearly unprecedented turn for the worse by directly intervening in the allocation of graduate scholarships in a manner that is unwelcome and unscholarly.

By interfering in the scholarship selection process, the Harper government has undermined the role of merit and peer-review.

The 2009 budget proposes a short-term increase in graduate student funding through the Canada Graduate Scholarships. The portion that would expectedly go to graduate students studying social science and humanities has been targeted to a narrow band of graduate students working toward “business-related degrees”.  This federal government is wrong to assume that it is within its role to dictate which research fields are valuable. Roughly 50% of university student researchers in Canada work in the social sciences and humanities (a majority of which are women). Within this area, roughly 10% of students are in business programs eligible for federal research grants (a majority of which are men). For decades, Canada’s federally-funded university research granting agencies have been independent. Doing so has generally insulated them from the political whims of the government of the day. They remain free to allocate their funding based on “peer-review”—a process by which experts in each field analyse funding proposals and award grants to the most outstanding applicants. The peer-review process is the standard awarding procedure at universities around the world. By interfering in the scholarship selection process, the Harper government has undermined the role of merit and peer-review. There are several other unanswered questions about this budget’s approach to research: why is the party that shares a history with the Reform Party all of the sudden taking a government-knows-best position? What does the government actually expect from these business students with this relatively small and short-term funding bump? Why does this government, both this year and in the past, choose to only fund research in male-dominated disciplines?    In addition to earmarking business scholarships, the 2009 budget proposes to cut $148M from the granting councils’ budgets over the next three years. By contrast, the U.S. stimulus package proposed by President Barak Obama includes a $3 billion investment in the National Science Foundation, $3.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. In total, President Obama is recommending increasing research funding in the U.S. by $12.5 billion. By cutting research agency funding and interfering in the grant selection process the Harper government is impairing Canada’s ability to weather the economic crisis. While other governments are embracing a research renaissance, our ability to keep pace with the rest of the world in top-flight university research has been weakened. We can ill afford to make these mistakes now; let us hope this government comes to its senses before it does permanent damage to the base of social and cultural research.