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Alberta Wants to Block Federal Dollars for Some Scientists

Danielle Smith seeks a veto over Ottawa-funded research her government doesn’t like. The bill, explained.

Lisa Young 15 Apr 2024The Tyee

Lisa Young is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. Her newsletter on Alberta politics is What Now?!?

OK, readers. You suddenly need to understand research funding in Canada. (Thanks to Danielle Smith for legislation that would give the Alberta government a veto over federal funding for academic research.)

Not to worry, I’ve got your back.

Federalism and post-secondary education

The provinces have jurisdiction over post-secondary education. They legislate in this area, approve the creation of institutions, set out how the institutions will be governed and pay some of the bills via operating grants to post-secondaries. The operating grants, together with revenue from tuition and things like parking, keep the lights on and pay faculty and staff salaries.

The federal government has no constitutional jurisdiction, but it has cash. And it thinks of “research” as being its responsibility. So the federal government is the major funder of research. It does this via the “tri-council” — the three granting councils at arm’s length from government. (Italics signal that this is important!)

What are the granting councils?

The three arm’s-length granting councils are the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, or CIHR; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, NSERC or “enn-serk”; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, SSHRC or “shirk” (I know, unfortunate acronym!).

Here’s an overview of what they do.

Who decides what gets funded?

A researcher who wants to get funded by one of the agencies submits an application that includes details about what the research would entail, why it’s important and what funds are required. These are adjudicated by panels of other researchers in the discipline. Government doesn’t get involved.

There are areas of research that have been identified as “strategic priorities” by the governing councils of the granting agencies, and so funds are set aside to fund research in these areas. So, CIHR sets aside money for “enhanced patient experiences and outcomes through health innovation” and “health and wellness for Aboriginal people.” SSHRC has set aside money for its Imagining Canada’s Future initiative, which prioritizes areas like “shifting dynamics of privilege and mobilization.” Probably a little “woke” for the Smith government’s taste, but hardly an extension of the Justin Trudeau government’s policy agenda.

How could the province get involved?

If the provincial government wanted to push research in a particular area in Alberta, it could spend its own money. And whaddya know! They already do that. Alberta Innovates provides funding focused on digital health, clean resources and smart agriculture. There’s nothing for the humanities and social sciences, but there’s nothing stopping the province from funding the kind of research the government would prefer.

But what about this new legislation?

Could the province stop the funding of research it doesn’t like?

Here’s CBC reporter Janet French’s account of what Smith said about post-secondary institutions:

“Smith said those agreements also require provincial oversight in Alberta because the federal government is making political decisions about which research projects to fund.

“‘That they fund in a certain way, based on a certain ideology, and that’s what we’re going to be able to determine once that becomes a lot more transparent,’ Smith said.”

For the provincial government to pick and choose what gets funded by the federal government would require the granting councils to amend their agreements with Alberta post-secondary institutions. Right now, those agreements basically say that the institution can be trusted to hold research money on behalf of the granting agencies, and that they promise to follow accounting rules and make sure that researchers comply with research ethics rules.

If the province insisted on ripping those agreements up to insert a clause saying that the province could veto funding, I suspect that the reply from Ottawa would be to say a firm “no” as this would undermine the political independence of the agencies.

If Alberta can’t accept independently adjudicated research granting competitions, they would say, then Alberta institutions can no longer hold research grants.

And I can’t begin to tell you what a big deal that would be for Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. It’s part of Peter Lougheed’s legacy that a province with just over 10 per cent of the national population is home to two of the country’s top seven or eight research institutions. Take away the ability to hold federal research grants, and decades of work building these institutions into nationally and internationally recognized research universities is gone overnight. As are the top researchers.

Surely this is not the Smith government’s intention. Surely her comments were meant to please the party base and rattle the “so-called experts” in their “ivory towers” but not to signal an actual intention moving forward.

But if Smith’s actual plan is to get into a fight with the national research establishment, it will be the province’s research universities that pay the price.  [Tyee]

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