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The Black Hole

Canary in the Coal Mine #2: Tying of SSHRC funding to business-related research


*** First two quick hits…

  1. The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars just released a position paper that covers many issues that will be brought up on this blog in one form or another. Please read it, use it, and offer feedback to the CAPS folks (heck, maybe even join there committees!)
  2. The first annual Canadian Science Policy Conference happened last week – great stuff and an excellent summary is given here . Congratulations to the organizers on putting together a great three day event – let’s hope the momentum continues!

Canary in the Coal Mine #2: Tying of SSHRC funding to business-related research

This past year, the Canadian government released a budgetary phrase that set off major alarm bells across the country. Countless letters and emails were written by trainees, NDP MP Niki Ashton set up a petition to protest, a facebook group formed, and everyone was generally incensed that the government of Canada had the nerve to allocate SSHRC funding exclusively for business related research. The official budget notice is on p 106 listed here

The primary reasons for the disgust and outrage were:

  1. CIHR and NSERC funding in the same budget allocation had no “business” strings attached
  2. Business related research should not be given priority over other areas of research in the SSHRC portfolio
  3. Political decisions should not arbitrarily change the research priorities of a peer reviewed research council

Many initial counters to this outrage were focused on these monies being additional research dollars, meaning that normal funding would not be affected. I am not 100% clear on whether or not this is true, but have read rumblings (I’d happily welcome sources!) from other bloggers (Don’t leave Canada Behind and Pyrenaemata of SSHRC cuts that may or may not be related to these new monies. Naturally everyone wants more money in their field of research, this blog entry aims to explore the issue of how monies get created/directed.

Typically, I write about medical science themed items, and a very interesting comparison can be made because medical scientists (generally the better funded lot of academics) have been engaging in this sort of directed funding for decades. A host of specific non-governmental pots of money exist such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society just to name a few. Most people would argue that this is because money is separate from the government agencies that are meant to fund the best academic research and can focus on whatever their donors are donating to – I say, fair enough.

The tricky part comes in when you look into government funding and specifically at the 2009 (and previous years too!) round of Canadian Institutes of Health Research successful fellowship applications. You’ll note no fewer than 50 “priority announcements” for specific themes of research exist and this has been happening in other countries such as the US and UK for years as well. It seems that somewhere in these muddy waters of who does and does not deserve funding, scientists in training have accepted that many dollars have strings attached, often steering the direction of future academics. This is even more prevalent at the research grant level with multiple Requests for Proposals and Priority Funding Announcements. Of course, this is a subject that many would debate and I certainly cannot hope to solve it in a few lines, but I would like to put two things out there that I think many people forget:

First, when you receive or are working off of a grant, it behooves you to remember where this money came from and what were its intentions. If your research dollars come from government the agencies typically have specific mandates ( SSHRC , NSERC , CIHR amongst others), but a simplified version of this is to ask if Aunt Sally and Uncle Frank who don’t “get research” would be happy to see their taxes spent in this particular way. If you don’t think you could extract a “yes”, then maybe you should consider rewriting that lay summary in your grant proposal or hit the streets to promote the fact that your research is important (an excellent example of creating this need for research is the Human Genome Project which took 3-5% of every dollar spent to promote and study the ethical, legal, and social issues of genetic research which translated into a huge burst of educative information for the public – 15 years later, everyone seems to have a concept of what DNA is and how particular genes can have remarkable effects on humans which has corresponded into a huge boost in funding and infrastructure)
Also to remember – the public has paid for you to move your research (not your career!) forward, so please publish – and encourage your supervisors to publish – in open access journals (like the Public Library of Science ) and to be open at conferences with data, ideas, etc. (thanks Michael Li for this reminder!)

Secondly, we have to consider why we are engaged in the research ourselves. It is not sufficient to say “because it’s neat” or “because I’m so smart that I should be paid to think” – we’re here (and I hope I’m not mistaken!) to collect new knowledge, devise new ways to assess things, and to generally investigate how the world around us operates. Sometimes academics will not naturally stumble into an area that the public deems as critical to research and it should be reasonable for a pot of money to be created to encourage research in that given area to create infrastructure and motivate bright people to enter that field.

Is “business-related research” one of these areas? Probably not. Should a political decision directly disturb current academic research by re-distributing funding? Probably not. Should political leaders be permitted to stimulate research in a particular under-researched area by allocating new monies? Hmmmm… comments anyone?

Next topic: Peer Review and Publishing – the best of the worst?

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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