Rye profs brace for full effect of research funding cuts

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By Scott Nowoselski

After the federal government announced plans to cut research funding in their January budget, Ryerson chemistry professor Daniel Foucher worried that graduate students might get the wrong impression of scientific research in Canada and seek work outside the country.

“To cut back on funding now when more students are going to be coming to school…is really sending the wrong signal to people who are in sciences,” he said. “It’s just saying, ‘Hey, there are no careers here, so move on.'”

After increasing funding throughout the early 2000s, the federal government cut research and development programs in this year’s budget. As a result, the three agencies that back basic research in Canada – the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CHIRC) – were ordered to slash their budgets by a combined $148 million over the next three years.

Now, university researchers are worried that with laboratory jobs for graduate students vanishing in Canada, some of the brightest minds might seek greener pastures in the United States.

American President Barack Obama announced plans to raise funding by $10 billion (U.S.) in medical research last week. Raising concerns that the ‘brain drain’ in which researchers migrate to countries with better funding, could be back on.

Foucher noted that while many professors might choose to stay put, research cuts could send future profs flying across the border.

“It’s the young superstars who will make the big choices,” he said. “The States is putting dollars into their system after years of neglect under the Bush administration, so they’re going to play catch-up.”

And for Foucher, it’s the young mobile superstars who will be most affected by the cuts. This in turn will hurt researchers and hinder Canadian research.

“(The cutbacks) are going to hurt students,” Foucher said.

“That’s who we spend the money on. Not only their salaries, but also the items we need to buy for them (to work in the labs).”

Foucher, whose research deals with conductive plastics that can be used to carry a molecular charge in electronic devices, hired two students last summer with the help of start-up funds from his program dean and from a grant he secured from NSERC.

Once he’d used his start-up funding, he was lucky enough to secure money from an industrial partner. But he worries the slashes in government funding will slow Canadian research.

The Harper government has been quick to defend to its actions, citing increased commitments to research infrastructure and  “qualified” graduate students (those with exceptionally high GPAs and/or previous research experience) as signs that it values innovation moving forward.

While Foucher said researchers appreciate the money, he said he feels it may be invested in the wrong places.

“You have to let (professors) hire the best students, nurture an atmosphere and let them incubate for a while. Then you’ll see results in three, four, five years’ time. If you stop that funding source, and you say we can only hire 50 per cent of what we usually hire, the impact is felt.”

That impact is less innovation coming out of Canada because students won’t be there to do the leg work that lets professors pump out research, said Foucher.

Colleen Carney, a Ryerson psychology professor, came from Duke University last summer to take a faculty position. She said the government’s decision to cut funding after years of investment reminds her of the situation at Duke when she first started working in the U.S. while George W. Bush was president.

“They have so much money in infrastructure, you don’t just build everything up and not pay for people to stick around,” she said.

Carney, who set up a clinical study of sleep disorders, said the investments made in research at Ryerson earlier this decade, specifically in creating the Psychology Research and Training Centre, were a major factor in her decision to come back to Canada.

Although she has funding from the American-based National Institutes of Health for the next four years, she’s worried many people will be lost to emigration if funding cuts drag on.

“I’m nervous about all the cuts,” she said. “I think it’s definitely a scary thing. I think we’re going to lose a lot of good people, which is a real shame.”

While the full effects of the cutbacks won’t be known for several years, Robert Dirstein, Ryerson’s director of research services, said many indirect sources of financial aid have already disappeared.

One of those is the intellectual property management program, which helped professors get their products patented before taking them to market. The patenting process is very expensive, but essential in ensuring that one can profit off their own discoveries. Dirstein said that professors will miss the program sooner rather than later.

“By no means did (the program) help you take your product to market, but it was a big first step,” he said. “At the moment, we’re okay. But if something doesn’t come along to replace it, we’ll have some trouble.”

Ryerson’s Department of Research and Innovation has funded a lot of programs to help researchers get started over the years and invests close to $1 million every year in programs like the ones that help undergraduate students find jobs.

But Dirstein said they likely wouldn’t know for a couple of years whether the recent cuts will affect the university’s ability to fund researchers internally. “That’s certainly something we want to maintain,” Dirstein said. “But I can’t guarantee that we will be able to maintain it.”

But professors remain hopeful that help is right around the corner. Foucher said that after five years of tremendous growth that allowed programs like stem cell research to flourish, it would be a shame for Canada to lose its place among the most innovative nations in the world.

“We know people need to eat, we know people need to go to school,” he said. “But if you’re bailing out car companies, dollar for dollar I think you’d do better putting that money into universities.”

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