Government policies have tilted the balance toward science, technology and medicine. Is it time to tilt back?

On May 17, 2007, the federal government released its long-anticipated science and technology strategy, entitled Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage. Through this new strategy, the government indicates that while it will continue to support basic research, it will adopt a more strategic approach of setting research priorities and supporting a more focused research agenda. The strategy suggests that “while basic research is a necessary foundation for advancing knowledge and innovation, Canada must increasingly harness science and technology to meet our social and economic needs. By setting research priorities, the government will focus funding, build partnerships, and lever Canada’s public research base to address social and economic challenges and maximize our competitiveness (p. 63).”

The priorities to be addressed by the federal government under this strategy include the four areas identified by the Council of Canadian Academies as Canada’s science and technology strengths:

•   environmental science and technologies;

•   natural resources and energy

•   health and related life sciences and technologies; and

•   information and communications technologies.

Although this science and technology strategy is relatively new, it reflects a continuation of trends at least a decade old that are transforming – and were intended to transform – the character of the higher education system in Canada. Beginning around 1997, a substantial increase on federal research funding within higher education promoted a twofold transformation of the university system. First, it heavily emphasized disciplines in the science, technology and medical – STM – areas of research at the expense of funding in the social sciences, humanities and fine arts disciplines. Second, it fostered the development of concentrations of research excellence through greater institutional specialization. Both these changes have had consequences that need to be closely examined.

The STM emphasis

Federal government research support is allocated through three granting councils: the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In 2002–3, 18 per cent of Canadian faculty members were identified with CIHR, and they received 42 per cent of Tri-Council funding. The 28 per cent of faculty members associated with NSERC received 44 per cent of the funding. Meanwhile, the 54 per cent associated with SSHRC received only 13 per cent. In a sense, the federal government’s traditional research support has always gone disproportionately to the STM disciplines, and the extent of this granting-council imbalance between the “hard sciences” and the arts disciplines has always been controversial. But while an imbalance of some degree can be explained by the fact that arts research is on average less costly, the intensification of the funding imbalances introduced by new federal funding initiatives in the late 1990s – especially by the Canada Research Chairs program – is not as easily defended in this way.

The process began in 1997 with the establishment of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). This foundation was created in response to growing concerns across the higher education system about the aging character of the country’s research infrastructure and the need for greater investments to ensure that Canadian researchers based at public universities remain competitive. CFI has received from the Canadian government well over $3 billion since its founding, and it is not unusual for a CFI competition to award between $500 and $750 million. These funds are focused entirely on research infrastructure, particularly equipment and, to a lesser extent, personnel to operate the equipment. In a higher education system the size of Canada’s, competitions awarding funds of this magnitude are profoundly significant.

From the beginning, CFI has been heavily concentrated in areas of research related to science, technology and medicine. The mandate of CFI limits the foundation to supporting research in four areas – health, the environment, science and engineering (areas that look remarkably similar to the areas of priority identified in the 2007 science and technology strategy). It is true that after the first CFI competition, the foundation relaxed the interpretation of the areas of emphasis, such that the term science was defined more broadly to include research in the social sciences, humanities and fine arts as well. Nevertheless, funding continues to be heavily focused in STM.

In 1999, two years after CFI was established to provide for research infrastructure, Ottawa launched the complementary Canada Research Chairs program to fund personnel support. The CRC program provided funds of $900 million over five years for the creation of 2,000 research chairs. As in the case of CFI infrastructure funding, the allocation of Canada Research Chairs is strongly tilted to the STM disciplines: 45 per cent of CRCs are allocated to research areas relating to NSERC, 35 per cent to CIHR-funded research areas and 20 per cent to the SSHRC-funded disciplines. In short, the distribution of CRCs largely tracks the allocation of funds to the three granting councils.

However, the logic of allowing the comparative cost of different fields of research to drive the number of research chairs in those fields is not compelling. Unless “less costly” research is synonymous with “lower-quality” or “less deserving” research, it is unclear why more than 50 per cent of the scholarly community should receive only 20 per cent of the chairs. While the CRC program has certainly provided universities with significant new funding to recruit and retain faculty members, it compounds the STM emphasis of the Canada Foundation for Innovation in ways that simply do not reflect the cost differential between the hard sciences and the arts disciplines.

The federal funding tilt in favour of the hard sciences is paralleled in virtually all of the provinces. To use Alberta as an example, the government has identified three primary research priorities – life sciences, energy and the environment, and information and communications technologies. These priorities align closely with those identified in the new federal science and technology strategy. Furthermore, the province provides highly disproportionate support to research in the health sciences and in the natural sciences and engineering through two provincially funded foundations – the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, which has an endowment of $1.5 billion, and the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, endowed with $1 billion to support research in science and engineering. In addition, the province has a fund to support research in information and communications technologies (iCORE), with an annual allocation of $10 million, and funding for organizations in genomics research. Overall, the research funding environment in the province, like the situation federally, is highly focused on health, natural sciences and engineering.

The reallocation of internal funds

Not only do the STM disciplines disproportionately benefit from the new external funding sources, but the influx of these funds also tends to trigger an internal reallocation of university budgets in favour of STM. This occurs to the extent that the external funds come in the form of “conditional grants” that need to be matched by other funds. Although the matching sources are typically intended also to be external to universities, in practice internal resources must often be committed.

CFI, for example, funds infrastructure projects to a maximum of 40 per cent of the total costs, with at least 60 per cent of the project funding coming from other sources. While industry was expected to be a major contributor of matching funds, it became clear soon after the CFI was introduced that the typical investment from industry would be far short of the 60 per cent of project funding needed for the CFI funds to be released. Consequently, in each of the provinces one or more pools of funding were created to provide matching support for a portion of a CFI-funded project. Thus, it has become typical for a project to receive approximately 30 to 40 per cent of its funding from CFI, a similar proportion from a provincial government program and the remaining funds from industry and other sources. The “other sources” often include internal university funds.

The internal funds on which universities draw for their contributions to the externally funded infrastructure or personnel come mainly from provincial government operating grants and tuition fees. Since the government operating grant is intended to support all parts of the university, the different parts might be expected to benefit from that part of the grant that they can fairly be said to “bring in.” Calculating what portion of the operating grant a faculty “brings in” is tricky and must account for the fact that some disciplines are inherently more expensive than others.

One of the authors of this article – Rainer Knopff – attempted to address these questions through an examination of the University of Calgary’s internal allocations of funds in the 2002–3 fiscal year. On the basis of conservative assumptions, the Faculty of Social Sciences “brought in” roughly $14 million of the university’s base operating grant. Yet, because tuition fees covered most of the faculty’s $21 million budget in that year – between 80 and 90 per cent – the faculty drew only between $2.1 and $4.2 million from the base operating grant. In effect, a faculty with 11 per cent of the university’s academic staff and 27 per cent of its course enrollees received only 1 to 2 per cent of the government operating grant, or between 15 and 30 per cent of its – conservatively estimated – contribution to that grant.

The same analysis concluded that the predominantly arts faculties collectively derived about 60 per cent of their budgets from tuition while the predominantly non-arts faculties (excluding medicine) collectively derived about 45 per cent of their budgets from tuition. Thus, while student loads are increasingly used to support faculties in the arts, the non-arts side of the house (again excluding medicine) draws funding disproportionately from the university’s base operating grant. This can be viewed as a cross-subsidy from the social sciences and humanities disciplines to the natural sciences and engineering disciplines. No doubt there are many reasons for this cross-subsidy, but the pressures for internal reallocation generated by the “conditional grant” features of external funds disproportionately targeted to the STM disciplines is certainly a factor.

Among the many effects of this relative shift of resources toward the STM disciplines is the changing distribution of faculty positions. In 1996, for example, 50 per cent of faculty members at the University of Calgary were identified as working in the SSHRC disciplines. By 2002, that percentage had dropped to 39 per cent, with STM disciplines seeing a corresponding increase in their relative share of university faculty positions. At least at some of the more research-intensive universities, the new funding environment has contributed to a significant transformation of faculty distribution.

The new differentiation among universities

In terms of the other objective of the new federal funding regime launched in the late 1990s, the differentiation of institutions of higher education, there are two main kinds of differentiation in play. First, because the STM emphasis of the new funding programs goes disproportionately to institutions with medical and engineering schools, it promotes an elite of “high-end,” research-intensive universities. These institutions, not surprisingly, have welcomed their good fortune. In 2003, Robert Birgeneau, then President of the University of Toronto, justified such preferential funding in terms of Canada’s need to become truly competitive at the international level. Doug Owram, then Provost and Vice-President (Academic) at the University of Alberta, agreed. “The reality,” said Owram, is that “Canada is a small country. We cannot afford to operate at a world level in dozens of institutions.”

Second, among universities, whether they fall in or outside the elite category, the federal programs also promote the development of differentiated or specialized areas of strength. The idea was to create concentrations of expertise rather than spreading every research area evenly across and among institutions. Even a smaller institution can benefit from this kind of differentiation by focusing on a small number of concentrations. The University of Lethbridge, for example, has developed significant strength in neuroscience.

An additional and perhaps unintended kind of differentiation may stem from the fact that universities less able to access the new STM-oriented funding programs, and thus less subject to the resulting internal reallocation pressures, may be able to grow and develop their arts complements at a higher rate than the STM elite institutions. While it seems unlikely that Canada would move to a U.S.-style differentiation, which includes institutions devoted solely to STM disciplines (e.g., the University of California, San Francisco) and institutions with great prominence primarily in the liberal arts (e.g., Boston College), anecdotal evidence suggests that we might see some shift in that direction.

Many arts disciplines have recently grown much faster and larger at, say, Concordia University than at the University of Calgary, and graduate-student funding in social science disciplines has been more dramatically expanded at Wilfrid Laurier than at some larger “research-intensive” universities. Not long ago it would have been difficult to imagine that a Concordia PhD in political philosophy might rival its University of Toronto counterpart. That this possibility is no longer unthinkable likely owes something to the new funding environment.

This evidence should not be overstated. Some major research universities with large endowments, and thus greater budget flexibility, have also augmented their arts disciplines in recent years. However, not all research-intensive institutions have been so fortunate, and there seems little doubt that changes are afoot.

Assessing the new regime

The new federal funding regime launched in the late 1990s was intended to increase the relative share of university resources going to the STM disciplines, and it has clearly achieved that objective. For the most part, universities have demonstrated considerable willingness to become active partners with government in realigning and reshaping their priorities and personnel. Unfortunately, there has been a relative deinvestment in the social sciences and humanities, and a decline in the comparative profile and importance of these disciplines within at least some of our leading research universities. Such disciplines appear to rely increasingly on the tuition support they can generate, and thus there have been substantial increases in teaching-related workload in these disciplines. At the same time, a growing number of chair appointments, with reduced teaching loads and accompanied by significantly increased infrastructure support, has been provided to researchers primarily in the government’s targeted areas. In addition, there has been an unexpected, indeed unintended, growth of arts disciplines at small, less STM-oriented institutions.

The government’s new funding strategy has brought money into the universities, but shaped them in a particular way. It is time to ask whether this is really the university system we want.