Humanities cash set aside for business-related areas

'Apparently ideological' condition on government funds sparks outrage in Canada, writes John Gill

March 19, 2009

The Canadian Government has provoked anger by using an injection of cash to exert an "undue influence" on the direction of university research.

Students, researchers and academics have criticised the arrangements, which offered extra cash to fund research posts, but ring-fenced the small portion allocated to the humanities and social sciences for use in business-related disciplines only.

An online campaign backed by thousands of protesters has accused the Conservative Government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of "placing a very nasty and apparently ideological condition" on the provision of funding.

The details were announced in the 2009 Federal Budget, which pledged an extra C$87.5 million (£49.3 million) over three years to expand graduate scholarships.

The majority of this was allocated to science and engineering and health research councils, with just C$17.5 million set aside for the social sciences and humanities.

However, it included the stipulation that "scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees".

A group set up on Facebook to challenge the proposals said: "It looks like the Conservatives haven't quite got the message yet about the importance of the arts, social sciences and humanities to the Canadian economy, let alone the Canadian soul."

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), told Times Higher Education that this was not the only attempt made to control university priorities through targeted funding.

He said that although the Government had provided C$2 billion for research infrastructure in the budget, there had been no new operational funding for academic research.

Instead, funding councils were told to cut almost C$150 million over three years, he said.

In the face of heavy criticism, Tony Clement, the minister responsible for research, said the Government would relax its definition of "research-related" infrastructure, giving universities more control over where they spend their capital funding.

He said: "When we think of research and development, we think a lot more broadly than test tubes and Bunsen burners. That's part of it, but the other part of it is research into the humanities, into the arts. All of that is absolutely included."

Despite this concession, the CAUT, which represents more than 65,000 university staff, said in an open letter to Mr Harper that Canadian research was being undermined by a combination of underfunding and the Government's attempts to specify what is studied.

It said: "You have often said that governments are terrible at picking winners and losers in the economy. Why then, is it appropriate for government to pick winners and losers in scientific research?

"History has shown that decisions about the merits of scientific research are best left to scientists, not governments or politicians."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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