Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Letter from the President of CIHR

 

There's a crisis in science funding in Canada. The budgets of the main granting councils are being cut by $148 million over the next three years.

Laura Frost is the President of the Canadian Society of Biochemistry, Molecular & Cellular Biology (CSBMCB). She recently wrote to Prime Minister Harper to draw his attention to the seriousness of this decision.
Dear Mr. Harper;

On behalf of the Canadian Society of Biochemistry, Molecular & Cellular Biology (CSBMCB), I would like to congratulate the Government of Canada for a number of measures in the 2009 Budget, including the more than $1.5 billion investment in science and technology. The CSBMCB is pleased to see in the budget $750 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in support of research infrastructure and $87.5 million for the temporary expansion of the Canada Graduate Scholarship Program as well as continued funding for Genome Canada.

However, the lack of additional new investment in Canada’s granting agencies Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), NSERC and SSHRC is of great concern. Without increased investments in operating funds to support doing research, Canada could lose the competitive edge that previous investments in students, scientists and infrastructure have achieved. Operating monies are the funds that allow our gifted students and other trainees to become competitive at an international level and leaders in the next generation of scientists. Without these crucial increases, fewer labs will be funded and fewer students, scholarships notwithstanding, will be trained in the diverse areas of science that define “interdisciplinary research”. Targeted research is one essential component of the funding process, but as a country, we need a strong background in basic research that feeds into technological development and planning for crises ranging from SARS to mountain pine beetles to environmental concerns in the oil sands.

Over the past several years, many leaders and national and provincial partners dedicated to advancing research in Canada have advocated for increased investments in discovery research through the granting councils to match the growth in infrastructure and research capacity through the CFI and the Canada Research Chairs Program respectively. Failure to align these funding streams at the federal level has created a serious imbalance in the supply and demand in health research and research generally, which will, in turn, increasingly affect our capacity to retain and recruit the best scientists.

The biotechnology sector is also suffering from a lack of investment capital. This industry serves as a primary receptor for much of Canadian research related to health, agriculture, manufacturing, environmental and resource-based emerging technologies. Fifty percent of Canadian companies indicate they will be closing or selling off their operations to international partners by the end of this year. Canada cannot afford to ignore the competitive environment other nationals will be adopting to help grow and stimulate their knowledge-based industries.

The economic impact of Canadian health research is significant. On an annual basis our industry generates $12 billion in economic activity and provides employment and training for over 10,000 people across Canada. The sector also supports more than 20,000 scientists, clinical investigators and other researchers and staff.

Canada has many of the right ingredients to succeed in the knowledge-based economy including a highly skilled workforce and some of the best research facilities in the world. The CSBMCB looks forward to working with the Government of Canada in laying the foundation for a stronger and more sustainable economy of the future in which research and development in the health and life sciences are a top national priority.

Sincerely,



Laura Frost, Ph.D.
President, CSBMCB
CSBMCB has also published a letter from the President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Read this letter ... comments below.
MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT OF CIHR

Following the January 26, 2009 Speech from the Throne, the Government of Canada tabled its 2009 Budget, Canada’s Economic Action Plan in the House of Commons on January 27. The Budget outlined the Government’s economic stimulus package designed to bolster the Canadian economy and provide support for Canadians as the world’s economies work through the current economic crisis. The Budget 2009 speech and documents can be found on the Finance Canada website at: http://www.fin.gc.ca.

Research plays a key role in improving the health of Canadians. That’s why, over the past three years, the Government has increased the annual base budget of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) by over $142 million. This year CIHR plans to spend approximately $917 million on peer-reviewed health research projects conducted at universities, hospitals and research centres across Canada.

I have summarized below the details of Budget 2009 as it relates to CIHR.

First, CIHR will receive $35M over the next three years for Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) to fund an additional 200 doctoral scholarships, valued at $35, 000 each per year for three years beginning in 2009-10, and an additional 400 master’s scholarships, valued at $17, 500 each for one year, in both 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Second, Budget 2009 also provided the results of the Government’s Strategic Review process. CIHR was one of the 21 Government Departments and Agencies that undertook a Strategic Review of its programs and services. The objective of the process was to assess whether programs:

• are effective and efficient;

• meet the priorities of Canadians; and

• are aligned with federal responsibilities.

The results of the process are as follows:

• CIHR funding of the Open Team Grant program will be discontinued. To respect current commitments, reductions will be phased in over the next three years with $1.5M in 2009-10, $5.5M in 2010-11, and $27.6M in 2011-12 and thereafter; and

• Funding for the Intellectual Property Mobilization (IPM) program will be discontinued. To respect CIHR’s current commitments, the annual reductions of $2M will commence in 2010-11 and end in 2011-12.

In addition, funding under the Indirect Costs Program will be reduced in proportion to reductions in the above direct cost programs. The relative ratio of funding for the direct and indirect costs will therefore remain essentially the same as prior to the Strategic Review.

In summary, taking into account the new investments for the Canada Graduate Scholarships and the strategic reallocations, CIHR’s budget for 2009-10 will increase by $12.5M, bringing our total budget to $978.8M.


Sincerely,



Alain Beaudet, MD, PhD
President
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
This is unacceptable. It sounds like a letter from a political lackey and not from someone who is really concerned about scientific research in Canada. Why can't Alain Beaudet mention that he is fighting on behalf of all Canadian scientists to increase CIHR funding in order to better support basic research? Is it because he isn't fighting?

We need someone who will stand up and oppose government underfunding, not someone who will make excuses for it. If the current President does not have the confidence of the scientists who are supported by CIHR then perhaps we should find a new CIHR President who does have their confidence.


15 comments :

  1. Why fight it? Just move to the US like I did.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think his letter is entirely suited as his role as a non-partisan bureaucrat. One would not expect him or say the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to openly oppose the will of Parliament, not only because it is not their job, but because it would be improper.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think his letter is entirely suited as his role as a non-partisan bureaucrat. One would not expect him or say the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to openly oppose the will of Parliament, not only because it is not their job, but because it would be improper.

    I call BS on this.

    CIHR is there to fund biomedical research, and the role of the President of the CIHR is to advocate on behalf of biomedical science. It absolutely IS the job of the CIHR President to openly oppose the will of Parliament, if the will of Parliament is contrary to the mission of the CIHR.

    The CIHR President is not there to kiss Stephen Harper's ass.

    ReplyDelete
  4. CIHR exists to fund biomedical research with the funds given to it by the budget crafted by Parliament. The crucial point is "by Parliament," because the Conservative government is a minority one and the budget passed with Liberal support. There may situations where a bureaucrat may speak out against the government, like the nuclear isotope example I alluded to in my previous message-- however, these situations are happily rare because they would have to be extraordinary. I agree that the CIHR president shouldn't kiss Prime Minister Steven Harper's ass because that would be equally improper as his role as a neutral bureaucrat who serves the will of Parliament.

    I find bureaucracy in Canada to be very nice, at least compared to the open warfare in the US.

    ReplyDelete
  5. CIHR exists to fund biomedical research with the funds given to it by the budget crafted by Parliament.

    If Parliament ceased all funding for CIHR, would the CIHR President be required to say "such is the will of Parliament; I'm going to Disneyland!"?

    If CIHR is getting a raw deal, it is the absolutely responsibility of it's leadership to point that out, not to take it and handwave an "increase" into existence.

    CIHR's budget is not increasing; scholarships are, which is fine, but where are these students going to do their work? Who will pay for the consumables they use in their labs? That is the role of operating grants, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that operating grant success rates and funding levels will continue to decrease under this budget.

    The Liberals did support this budget, and for that they will have to face the voters. But that is really beside the point; the point is that no matter who passed the budget, it is not the responsibility of the CIHR President to meekly take whatever comes his way. That does not inspire confidence to those of us who are funded (or have been funded, in my case) by the CIHR.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If Parliament ceased all funding for CIHR, would the CIHR President be required to say "such is the will of Parliament; I'm going to Disneyland!"? If CIHR is getting a raw deal, it is the absolutely responsibility of it's leadership to point that out, not to take it and handwave an "increase" into existence.

    Firstly, it is facetious to imagine an absolute funding cut scenario that hasn't happened, probably won't happen, and even if it did, I have already addressed it with regard to extraordinary situations. Secondly, the President of the CIHR is responsible for the day-to-day operation of CIHR; policies and so forth are given to him by the Governing Council of CIHR, again highlighting how it isn't his job nor his place to dictate to the government how science should be funded. Thirdly, I would recommend everyone skim the CIHR act as I have just done, because imagining roles for the president is untrue and unfair. The url is "http://tinyurl.com/bmrjt6".

    Because people don't seem to understand my point, I'll repeat it again: the president of CIHR is a bureaucrat, not a politician nor a "political lackey". It's pointless to criticise him as proxy to the Conservative government.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have to agree with Dunbar on this.

    The CIHR is a government agency.

    Alain Beaudet is a public servant. As such he is not allowed to be polictical, or agitate against the government.

    As a private citizen he is free to agitate, and be as political as he wants, but the letter was written as President of the CIHR, and as a public servant, his role is to be apolitical and enact the policies of the government of the day.

    It is unfair to compare the two letters. Laura Frost is not a publuic servant, and, as such, is free to express here opinions.

    If Parliament ceased all funding for CIHR, would the CIHR President be required to say "such is the will of Parliament; I'm going to Disneyland!"?

    Yes he would.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yes he would.

    Well, we'll have to agree to disagree. We have fundamentally different views of the role of the federal funding agencies.

    If the government of the day decided that it no longer wanted NSERC to fund projects related to evolution on, ahem, ideological ground, you'd all be crying "government interference"; we would not expect the President of NSERC to toe-the-line.

    The responsibility of the president of CIHR in this instance is to say "we got shafted". At the very, very least, he should say nothing. What is absolutely should NOT do is come out with a letter praising the government for slashing the CIHR budget.

    As a scientist, I no longer have confidence that the CIHR will fight for me.

    ReplyDelete
  9. The Public Service Employment Act (2003) Part 7 states:

    113. (1) An employee may engage in any political activity so long as it does not impair, or is not perceived as impairing, the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties in a politically impartial manner.

    Regulations
    (2) The Governor in Council may, on the recommendation of the Commission, make regulations specifying political activities that are deemed to impair the ability of an employee, or any class of employees, to perform their duties in a politically impartial manner.

    Factors
    (3) In making regulations, the Governor in Council may take into consideration factors such as the nature of the political activity and the nature of the duties of an employee or class of employees and the level and visibility of their positions.


    In other words in his role as President he would not be allowed to criticise the government's policies, because that would be a political activity, and would reasonably be construed as not performing his duties in a politically impartial manner - especially in one so high up in the hierarchy.

    His job is to implement the policies of the government of the day. He may lobby Ministers about the policy, but once a decision has been made, he is duty bound, and legally bound, to implement that decision. Public servants don't get to pick and choose which policies they support and implement.

    ReplyDelete

  10. His job is to implement the policies of the government of the day. He may lobby Ministers about the policy, but once a decision has been made, he is duty bound, and legally bound, to implement that decision. Public servants don't get to pick and choose which policies they support and implement.


    I'm not saying he should pick and choose. Of course he is duty bound, as a public servant, to deal with what the government gives him.

    But that doesn't mean he has to come out with such a blatant ass-kissing statement as the one he posted on Feb 20. He doesn't have to invent budget increases where there are none. How is THAT 'politically impartial'?

    Say nothing; silence would speak volumes here. The scientific community knows that CIHR is getting screwed; that operating funds are falling fast, and that an extra $35M of scholarships will do absolutely nothing without funds for day-to-day expenses, which come primarily from operating grants.

    The President of the CIHR needs to inspire the confidence of biomedical scientists. He does not.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Chris Nedin says,

    Alain Beaudet is a public servant. As such he is not allowed to be polictical, or agitate against the government.

    I agree that Alain Beaudet is a type of public servant but I do not agree that he has to support everything the government does.

    Some public servants are experts in their fields and in their role as experts they are obligated to stand up for certain policies.

    In this case, Beaudet is presumably knowledgeable in the field of science policy and he knows full well that the current government policy is damaging to Canadian science. I expect him to be saying that when he meets with members of parliament.

    I also expect him to be saying the same thing when he gives public talks or when he meets with groups of scientists. In other words, he should be consistent with his advice and advocacy of science.

    He is not just a bureaucrat who was hired to manage CIHR. He is also a government adviser on science policy. He should be honest enough to declare when the government policy conflicts with his expert advice.

    At the very least, he should explain the consequences of government policies. In the present case, he should be announcing how CIHR plans to cut back on the number of grants over the next few years and explaining how this will affect health sciences.

    ReplyDelete
  12. But that doesn't mean he has to come out with such a blatant ass-kissing statement as the one he posted on Feb 20. He doesn't have to invent budget increases where there are none. How is THAT 'politically impartial'?

    To inject a bit of lightness into this debate, one may say that there technically is an increase, only not a net increase. Anyway, I only see "strategic reallocations" in Mr. Beaudet's letter and not decreases per se. It is possible that these decreases are hidden or forthcoming, but I don't see a massive decrease in funding for bread and butter operating grants. I would be very happy if someone could breakdown the actual CIHR budget for posterity because I don't quite understand it myself with everyone throwing around numbers.

    Going into this debate, I am a bit sceptical about all this doom and gloom because I am somewhat removed from the funding process. I understand there is cause for concern, especially if established investigators express concern, but some of the arguments here are a bit weird. For instance, Mike says that graduate student scholarships do nothing for the day-to-day expenses of a lab-- this is only partially true, I think. Salaries and stipends from what I understand form quite a sizable proportion of a lab's budget, and labs are usually funded by more than one grant, so it's not like increasing the number of graduate scholarships is completely unhelpful (assbackwards yes, but not without value).

    And finally, the prevailing criticism of Mr. Beaudet seems to be that he didn't criticise the government in his letter. I've already addressed the public nature of his job so I won't belabour it. However, I nor any of you know exactly what Mr. Beaudet thinks and acts personally, so it's presumptuous to expect him to conform to the fashion that you expect him to act. I suggest contacting him yourself: alain.beaudet at cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

    ReplyDelete
  13. He isn't a type of public servant, he is a public servant. And as such he must comply with the Public Service Act. That precludes making political statements.

    He can lobby Ministers for science funding in briefings, but once the decision is made, he must implement it.

    He cannot declare when the government policy conflicts with his expert advice because that advice is confidential.

    If Canada is anything like Australia, public servants cannot be asked about advice to Ministers (it's confidential), nor about their opinions on government policy.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Chris Nedin says,

    He isn't a type of public servant, he is a public servant. And as such he must comply with the Public Service Act. That precludes making political statements.

    It's not that simple. The President of CIHR is a public advocate of health research. He is the spokesperson for medical researchers whose advice he solicits on a regular basis.

    CIHR is an arm's-length government corporation. You can read the CIHR Act here. One of the objectives of CIHR is, "ensuring transparency and accountability to Canadians for the investment of the Government of Canada in health research."

    I see the role of CIHR President as similar to that of the President of a public University.

    ReplyDelete
  15. An arms length government corporation is still very much an appendage of the government, unlike universities. The autonomy between the two is also very much different, because universities derive their income from numerous sources while government corporations derive them from very few. Finally, university presidents are expected to look after their own, while government corporation presidents work for the government-- quite different positions as you can see.

    I would also like to note that none of the objectives of CIHR are explicitly hindered by a budget decrease.

    ReplyDelete