Liberals stage managing announcements for indirect costs of university research

Guest Contributor
March 18, 2002

Level of support still falls short of demand

Liberals MPs are fanning out across the country to promote the allocation of indirect costs for university research under the $200-million fund announced in the last federal Budget (R$, December 17/01). The announcements mark the second major program unveiled as part of the government’s much vaunted innovation strategy and are being tightly controlled to ensure maximum political impact and branding. The MPs, from Industry minister Alan Rock on down, are travelling the nation armed with identical press releases in which only the numbers and names of ministers and institutions have been changed.

The indirect costs program provides money equal to approximately 25% of indirect research costs based on each university’s share of funding from the three federal granting councils.

To determine the eligible amounts for each institution, Industry Canada is utilizing tri-council data generated for the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, covering the years FY98-99 to FY00-01. The formula is weighted in favour of small universities, But officials won’t comment on what that means for recipients or how the funding formula works until all the political announcements have been made — a situation that doesn’t sit well with many bureaucrats. Ironically, the data upon which the allocation decisions are based are in the public realm, meaning anyone with a calculator can reasonably estimate the amounts each institutions is set to receive.

Each university president has received a letter specifying the amount their institution will receive, but they have not been given the total data set. They are also being asked to keep the amount confidential until the relevant minister is able to make the official announcement. That process was supposed to be completed in short order, and at press time less than 60% of the awards had been announced.

But the rapid pace of announcements stopped dead on March 8. That included scheduled events for Univ of Guelph, Wilfred Laurier Univ, Univ of Waterloo and four Manitoba-based institutions for which media advisories had already been issued.

The remainder are expected to be announced by the end of the month, but the time pressure being placed on politicians to make significant S&T announcements is severe. Just one other program — Technology Partnerships Canada — has a backlog of nearly 30 unannounced investments and its executive director has pledged to make them all public within two months (see page 5).

“This makes us and the ministers look like fools. It’s embarrassing,” says one official who asked not to be named. “The schedule was developed at Industry Canada and it keeps changing.”

“The Government will work with the university community on ways to provide ongoing support for indirect costs that is predictable, affordable and incremental to existing support.”

—Budget Plan 2001

Even those institutions whose indirect costs allocation are public and politically blessed don’t have a complete picture of how the new money can be spent or what requirements will be imposed. Nevertheless, they welcome the new fund and anticipate a permanent program in which the level of funding is even higher than the 25% now being provided.

“Demand has increased tremendously with the recent emphasis on innovation. Anything less than 40% will continue to give us difficulty but this fund is good news and acknowledges the principle. Even 40% is not totally adequate but it’s defensible,” says Dr Nils Petersen, the recently installed VP research at the Univ of Western Ontario (UWO). UWO received $7.25 million in indirect costs funding for itself and affiliated institutions, based on their receipt of $86.4 million in tri-council funding over the applicable three-year period.

Petersen says that he is still waiting for guidelines on how the funding should be spent as well as any reporting requirements on spending intentions.

The funding for indirect costs is included in the supplementary estimates for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which is administering the disbursement of cheques on behalf of the government.

Allocation of Indirect Costs

University of Toronto22,276,173
McGill University14,812,124
University of British Columbia13,757,785
Université de Montréal10,247,638
University of Calgary7,318,918
McMaster University7,255,502
University of Western Ontario7,248,173
Queen’s University6,155,806
York University3,727,174
École Polytechnique de Montréal3,681,838
Université du Québec à Montréal3,182,813
Concordia University3,061,815
INRS *2,552,949
University of New Brunswick2,537,726
University of Windsor2,211,689
Laurentian University1,157,744
University of Lethbridge803,987
École de technologie supérieure665,731
Lakehead University651,766
Ryerson Polytechnic University607,046
École des Hautes Études Commerciales540,283
Mount Allison University407,032
St. Thomas University27,480
Total (23) (as of March 8th)115,000
* Insitut national de la recherche scientifique

Federal officials argue, with some validity, that the highly politicized process of rolling out the announcements at campuses across the country affords welcome publicity for the universities. It also bodes well for ongoing discussions between the government and between Industry Canada and Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to develop a permanent program.

Universities have been pressing Ottawa for years to introduce measures to cover at least a portion of indirect costs, but it wasn’t until the provinces — most notably Ontario — created funding mechanisms of their own that the federal government moved the issue higher up the priority list.

So far, there seems to be general agreement on what actually constitutes indirect costs. But a permanent program is proving a much more difficult challenge. In addition to negotiations with the AUCC, Ottawa has agreed to work with the provinces on the issue. That pledge was made last fall during a meeting of federal and provincial S&T ministers in Quebec City (R$, October 10/01) At the Quebec City meeting, it was agreed that the federal government would not introduce any new program in which the province had a vested interest without prior consultation. The next meeting of S&T ministers was scheduled for June in British Columbia.


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