Canadian investment in science and engineering is currently going through turbulent times and UBC is more vulnerable than its peer universities to the repercussions. Unlike Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, B.C. has no provincial granting agency to offset the cuts and changes happening on the federal level.
So how is scientific research funded in Canada? To start with, there’s what’s called a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The Discovery Grant program, the “bread and butter” of every university research scientist or engineer, has been stagnant for the past few years and is destined to remain so for a while. Yet, the number of applicants keeps on climbing: From 3,300 in 2010, to almost 4,000 for the 2013 competition, including 700 first-time applicants. The net result of this freeze is that the success rate for applicants has plummeted from 79.7 per cent in 2001 to 57.7 per cent in 2011, while the average grant dropped from $37,578 to $33,691. Keep in mind that the bulk of these awards go to pay research assistantships for students, salaries for lab technicians, investigators’ travel cost to workshops and field stations, computers and other minor equipment. The effect of this deliberate bleeding of the Discovery Grant program on UBC and the universities in general is not negligible.
NSERC’s elimination of the $35M “Major Resources Support” after the 2012 federal budget was another major setback for a number of senior researchers and their students. This program used to assist major and unique national or international experimental and thematic research resources to cover their operating and maintenance costs. For UBC researchers, this means the potential loss of several major research centres: the Bamfield marine sciences Centre, the Pacific Northwest Consortium Synchrotron Radiation Facility, as well as access to the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility, the Centre for Molecular and Materials Science at TRIUMF, and the Pacific Centre for Isotopic and Geochemical Research.
The moratorium on the Research Tools and Instruments program has caused havoc within the experimental research science community. This program allows researchers to purchase small to medium research equipment and installations, from personal computers to medium-size laboratory instruments. It is key to basic researchers, and UBC’s research laboratories will feel the cuts, reported to be about $20 million from a current budget of $31.4 million, acutely.
Most painful were the cuts to the traditional master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral program. From 2010 to 2011 alone, master’s awards were down 36 per cent. Doctoral awards down 28 per cent and, most alarmingly, postdoctorals were down 54 per cent. In 2012, NSERC awarded 66 per cent fewer fellowships than it did five years ago. In B.C. the numbers of postdoctoral awards fell from 28 in 2010 to 8 in 2011. In this year’s competition, which saw a success rate of 7.8 per cent, NSERC awarded 98 fellowships, which are meant to cover 20 scientific disciplines. This is in a country that claims 59 Ph.D.-granting institutions.
Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the heart and soul of any department. Postdoctoral fellows bring fresh research perspectives from the universities where they graduated. They invigorate the learning experience with their infectious and youthful enthusiasm. Changes and cuts that jeopardize a department’s doctoral and postdoctoral programs are detrimental to both its academic and its research mission.
UBC faculty attract more than half a billion dollars per year in research funding from external sources. Yet, these substantial resources are never on the radar screen of the University’s Board of Governors, which is responsible for all the business of the university. Administrations never deal with the consequences of a potential loss of external research funding, and do not factor in such a possibility in their risk management calculations. They ought to.
Nassif Ghoussoub is a professor of mathematics and elected faculty representative on the UBC Board of Governors. Front of Class is a series of columns on post-secondary policy from UBC students, professors, instructors and administrators. If you’re interested in writing on this topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.