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Bill 18 positions Alberta government as gatekeeper of federal research funding

Opponents say it poses a threat to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the future of the postsecondary sector in Alberta.


Alberta’s postsecondary education sector wants to be exempted from a new bill that gives the government control over whether public institutions such as universities can receive federal funding.

The Provincial Priorities Act (Bill 18), which passed at the end of May and will be enacted in early 2025, will require researchers to obtain the province’s approval before entering into funding agreements with the federal government. This includes the Tri-Councils: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Premier Danielle Smith has described Bill 18 as a strategy for aligning federal tax dollars with provincial priorities and providing Alberta a “fair share of federal tax dollars.” Ms. Smith and the United Conservative Party have also stated that the bill pushes back against ideological bias in research and  the Trudeau government’s “federal overreach”

But opponents insist the bill represents provincial overreach in the Canadian higher education sector. They argue that the bill, as it is currently written, threatens academic freedom and institutional autonomy and will actually result in fewer research dollars from Ottawa, not more.

‘Not the right tool’

University of Alberta President Bill Flanagan fears that if Bill 18 is enacted in its present form, his university – along with all Alberta universities – will lose much of their federal funding. “There’s no tool within Bill 18 that will help us gain more federal research funding – quite the reverse,” he said. “It imposes a significant risk of declining federal research dollars to Alberta.”

When it comes to federal research funding in Alberta, the U of A has the most to lose. The fifth-highest research-funded university in Canada, the university receives about $500 million in research funding annually. In 2023, U of A researchers secured over $215 million in federal funding via 1,800 separate funding agreements.

In a recent op-ed, Mr. Flanagan argued that Bill 18 threatens the competitive advantage of all of the province’s universities. To avoid provincial interference in federal funding arrangements, top researchers are bound to choose universities in other provinces. And current researchers may jump ship for positions elsewhere in Canada where they can safely take their funding, research programs, and patentable intellectual property.

If the province’s goal is to increase federal funds to the government’s priorities areas, such as the energy sector, there are better tools available, he said. “Offering matching funding for federal funding is always of interest to Ottawa. There are lots of tools available, but in our view, Bill 18 is not the right tool.”

Bureaucratic barriers

Some argue that fewer Alberta academics will end up applying for federal funding given the increased administrative burden, combined with the possibility of the province vetoing applications.

“We feel inundated with that anyway as research applications in social sciences, humanities and the hard sciences are pretty extensive as it is. The last thing we want is to fill out more forms for the provincial government,” said political sociologist and University of Lethbridge Professor Emeritus Trevor Harrison.

On top of this, federal funding agencies have strict deadlines that will be hard for Alberta researchers to meet if the province’s vetting system is bogged down in bureaucracy. “This is not a government that’s fast on its feet,” said Dan O’Donnell, president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA).

In a statement to University Affairs, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education stated that “Advanced Education is looking at all available options to establish a streamlined approval process that avoids adding administrative burden on affected organizations.” They went on to say that the approval process will be “determined through continued stakeholder engagement and the regulatory development process.”

A misunderstanding of the granting process

Both the writing of the bill and the government’s comments suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the granting process, according to opponents.

“The first false premise is that federal funding for research … is ideologically driven,” said Dr. O’Donnell. It is not the federal government itself, but rather committees of academics overseen by funding agencies at arm’s length from the government, that award research funds. An English professor at ULethbridge, Dr. O’Donnell has sat on a dozen committees and says Alberta researchers are typically overrepresented on the committees.

Gordon Swaters, president of the Association of Academic Staff at the U of A (AASUA), believes the government’s comments “betray an alarming misunderstanding of the grant awarding and selection system in Canada.” Just as concerning is the possibility of the government politicizing university research for political gains.

A threat to academic freedom

Dr. Swaters noted that the premier’s comments suggest the government will apply “some sort of ideological litmus test” to university research. “We see that as a grave threat to academic freedom,” he said.

Government censorship is a widely felt concern. “There is a real threat here in terms of trying to control research,” said Dr. Harrison, who co-edited a book on the UCP titled Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney’s Legacy and Alberta’s Right, in 2023. He noted that the premier’s comments suggest “there’s something nefarious going on in what is being funded, the kind of research being funded.” He says this aligns with the views of the party’s right-wing, populist base, which is ignorant about and sometimes suspicious of academics.

As much as the bill suggests “sabre-rattling with Ottawa,” many see it as an obvious power grab, as well. “This is a very controlling and centralizing government,” said Dr. Harrison. Despite its promises to cut red-tape, the UCP “wants to have its hands involved in everything people are doing and centralize authority not just within the government itself, but within the executive and the premier’s office particularly.”

Besides the potential for government censorship, Dr. O’Donnell argued that “universities are going to be very worried and start self-censoring, because as we saw during the funding crisis, university administrations were so scared of the government that they didn’t protest even in the face of 40 per cent cuts.”

The government has promised to consult with stakeholders over the summer and, according to the ministry of advanced education, consultations began at the start of June. University Affairs reached out to a spokesperson for more information on what the process might look like, but was not provided any further details.

The government has stated that it will consider excluding Tri-Council funding, but will not exclude research funding from the bill. Although this would do a lot to mitigate the harm of the bill, Mr. Flanagan is still hoping for full exemption.

“This [bill] is a matter of fundamental concern,” he said. “It goes right to the heart of academic freedom and the role of universities in a free and democratic society – as places of robust debate and research that is not aligned with the priorities of the government of the day.”

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  1. Sookochoff Shannon / July 10, 2024 at 15:32

    I am pleased to see you make the connection between our shock and complacency in the face of 40% cuts in 2020 and the censorship that will arise from Bill 18. Canadian academic communities most certainly need to provide leadership against the use of financial strangleholds to control society. In fact, climate crisis, vast economic disparity, and a genocidal use of violence to control people and land are problems that require all hands on deck, particularly from folks with tenure and expertise. There is nothing more important.

  2. Dwayne / July 10, 2024 at 22:12

    The UCP will stop at nothing to undermine democracy, and get complete control over everything, much to the detriment of the people.
    Bill 18 is another disaster bill that Danielle Smith and the UCP created, without much thought of the ramifications of it.
    Universities in Alberta are cash strapped as it is, due to the UCP’s cuts, which were caused by them doing many very costly mistakes. These grants are important to help fund essential research, including with things such as medical research that could help save lives. There is a strict process for getting these grants, and they are not controlled by the federal government, but by expert academics.
    The UCP are causing great problems with their foolish approaches to things.

  3. Andrew Iwaniuk / July 11, 2024 at 11:52

    One of the concerns that few people have raised is that this opens the door to the province not providing matching funds for programs such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). If the proposed research does not match up with UCP priorities (e.g., climate change, grizzly bear hunting), they have a means to not provide matching funds thereby preventing researchers from purchasing critically important infrastructure.

    As someone based at an Alberta post-secondary, I cannot recommend that anyone come here for a job for the foreseeable future. The uncertainties of Bill 18 combined with budget cuts and the anti-education political climate make it very difficult to continue to work in higher education in Alberta.

  4. Harriet Chupka / July 11, 2024 at 14:36

    We are against Bill 19. It is disconcerting how the UCP government under Danielle Smith which to have control over freedoms of Alberta institutions.