Reforming universities is difficult. Cures tried elsewhere, like the UK Research Assessment Exercise, have induced people to publish more. Yet, to the extent that research comes at the cost of time spent teaching or engaging with students, "incentivizing" research could actually decrease the social value of universities.
University reform is doubly difficult in Canada, where universities are a provincial responsibility, and coordinated action is problematic. I suspect that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would like to pull a Margaret Thatcher, and end tenure, or whip academics into shape with frequent assessments. But the federal government has no jurisdiction to act in this area.
Hence the government is pursuing a multi-level strategy.
First, it is funding winners; Canada's big, research-intensive universities. The federal budget set aside $225 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The CFI funds large institutional projects - $18 million for superconducting electron accelerators, for example. Some of the projects benefit social science or humanities researchers at mid-ranked institutions, such as the $5 million the CFI gives to the Research Data Centres. But most CFI money goes to Canada's larger universities, for big projects in health, science and technology. There's not much there for, say, a political scientist at Trent University or a historian at the University of Victoria.
Second, the federal government is putting money behind commercial, business-oriented endeavours, and public-private partnerships. $121 over two years goes to the National Research Council "to help the growth of innovative businesses" - not those folks at NRC headquarters on Sussex Drive. There is $165 million for Genome Canada - serious funding for commercial, bio-tech research, especially that carried out in university-industry collaborations.
Third, it is giving greater prominence to colleges. One third of the new money going to the granting councils (NSERC, SSHRC, CIH) is earmarked for enhancing the "College and Community Innovation Program." There's another $20 million over three years "to help small and medium-sized enterprises access research and business development services at universities, colleges and other non-profit research institutions of their choice."
Colleges also feature in the centerpiece of this budget, the new "Jobs Grant". Under this program, the federal government will give $5,000 - to be matched by $5,000 from provincial sources and $5,000 from an employer - for job training.
The Grant will be for short-duration training, and will include eligible training institutions, including community colleges, career colleges and trade union training centres.
The job grant is a response to a perceived problem - this country's lack of skilled workers. By omission, the budget document makes it clear: universities aren't part of the solution.
Academics often tout the value of curiosity driven research, pointing to the phenomenal technological breakthroughs that build upon basic science (see, for example, here, or here, or here. Yet arguments about the total value of curiosity driven research, or the value of the best curiosity driven research, says nothing about the value of marginal curiosity driven research.
As someone who spends more time blogging than doing conventional academic research, I am probably more skeptical than most. The numbers give me good reason to be skeptical. One vaguely interesting post on Worthwhile will get more views in a few days than all of the articles I have listed on the Ideas website combined get in a year. The most read article in the journal Applied Economics wouldn't come close to making WCI's annual top 10 list. Hardly anyone cares about mid-level social science, humanities or even scientific research.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, population aging will put enormous pressure on provincial budgets. The provinces will be looking for places to cut. It is bound to occur to someone that redirecting professorial time from research to teaching could result in substantial cost savings. If academics at mid-ranked universities don't want this to happen, we need to show that our research is of value.
But is it?