News  Big changes for Quebec science funding

Province consolidates research money, faces criticism

The provincial government’s new strategy for research and innovation is facing intense criticism from certain members of the scientific research community, who fear that cost-cutting measures targeting research funding may debilitate scientific development in Quebec.

In its last budget in March, the government announced plans to merge its three existing research financing organizations – specializing in the fields of nature and technology, society and culture, and health – into a single new one called the Quebec Research Fund. Despite the criticism, the new plan has been acclaimed by parts of the entrepreneurial and scientific sectors.

A “chief scientist” will be appointed to oversee the new organization’s administration and serve as a spokesperson for scientific research in Quebec. The government intends to implement this restructuring by April 2011. The final outcome of the entire plan has yet to be determined as it first has to be passed by the National Assembly.

Mawana Pongo, the Director of Policies and Analysis for the Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade, explained that the government’s goal to reduce administrative costs was key to this restructuring.

“The decision [to combine existing funding agencies] into one organization was made in the context of the government’s efforts to achieve a budgetary equilibrium, so greater efficiency in terms of governmental administration,” Pongo told The Daily in French.

This decision is just one feature of Quebec’s strategy for research and innovation (SQRI) for 2010 to 2013, announced by the Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade in June. The Ministry based its decisions on the recommendations of a special consulting group. The group – consisting of about twenty specialists from various sectors, including universities and businesses – worked for almost a year to come up with strategies to update Quebec’s current research program.

The SQRI’s other major initiatives include supporting the marketing of innovations, providing more university scholarships, and launching five major developmental projects – including an electric bus – to stimulate research. The government intends to spend $1.039 billion for these projects.

The business community has welcomed the overall strategy’s emphasis on channelling innovation toward increasing industrial productivity.

“I think that for once, the government has understood that innovation is supposed to make us more productive than our competitors, and has created the necessary harmonization between innovation, marketing and the needs of our businesses,” Daniel Audet, the first Vice-President at the Conseil du patronat du Quebec, told The Daily in French. “Too often, innovation was perceived as researchers doing work in their labs. It can be that. But it must be followed by commercialization, and answer our actual needs. Innovation in a sealed environment is not very useful.”

Some scientists have also spoken in favour of particular features of the SQRI. For example, Executive Director of Genome Quebec Jean-Marc Proulx told La Presse that he was “very happy” with the strategy because it identified genomics as a strategic sector for development.

However, student groups and left-wing policy experts have criticized increasing government investment in market-ready university research. Eric Martin, a researcher at the Institut de recherche et d’information socio-économiques (IRIS), said the process contributed to a “knowledge economy,” which is turning universities into “patent-producing” factories. “The knowledge economy is the worst thing that has happened to knowledge,” Martin said in a talk at McGill Friday. “People think, ‘Great, there will be knowledge everywhere.’ No, there is economy everywhere.”

PGSS VP External Ryan Hughes, speaking at the same event Friday, echoed Martin. “We are in danger of creating a Canadian version of an industrial-educational complex,” he said.

However, the merging of Quebec’s existing research financing agencies has provoked heated contention. Members of the scientific community have voiced concerns over the haste with which the government made this decision, and feel that they were insufficiently consulted.

Martin Doyon, the Coordinator of University and College Research at the Ministry of Economic Development, admitted that administrative restructuring had not been specifically brought up during the consultation period.

“The consultations for the SQRI were launched in June 2009,” Doyon told The Daily in French. “But the announcement of the regrouping of the three funds itself occurred on March 30 with the budget. It was something that had been discussed before, but it was not brought specifically as a point of debate during the consultations for the SQRI.”

Another concern is that the creation of the Quebec Research Fund might harm each existing fund’s level of financing and specificity.

“The three councils have distinct mandates and serve Quebeckers and their research communities well and they operate efficiently, so it’s difficult to see any savings,” professor and chair of McGill’s department of Biochemistry David Y. Thomas wrote in an email to The Daily
However, Doyon stressed that this restructuring will only occur on the administrative level, as there will exist three separate research boards within the Quebec Research Fund to represent different areas of research.

“There are three sectoral boards planned for the Quebec Research Fund,” said Doyon.

“Three budget envelopes will be granted for the three research areas… Currently, the three financing organizations receive grants from the government. In the SQRI, these funds will once again be given in a distinct manner, according to the field of research.”

“It will be the same mechanism as now… If you take natural science and technology as an example, there will be a board made up of people who best know this field. Same thing for health, same thing for society and culture. Knowledge of the field will be there. … The real difference is that there will be a central administrative council and a chief scientist who will have a more central vision.”

Nevertheless, scientists remain concerned about the future of research financing at McGill and in Quebec.

“We are all concerned as [the restructuring] doesn’t make any sense,” said Thomas. “Certainly the FRSQ [the provincial agency responsible for financing in health research] is a unique organization in Canada and much admired by researchers in other provinces.”