Alex Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates had a great post on his One Thought Blog today dealing with policy-making and change. His comparison to policy-making in Ottawa as a slow stately moving river compared to Washington's high-pressure ice jam was pretty entertaining - he only left out that parts of the policy making river in Ottawa sometimes get backed up and are full of still and stagnant water, but I digress...Nevertheless, he made some interesting points.
Alex Usher believes that change is afoot this fall and that one way or another the government in Ottawa is about to change opening the way to new ideas. New governments are generally good at campaigning but their policy platforms generally do not cover everything they need to do - so there is an opening for new ideas and opportunities for 'policy entrepreneurs'. However, these windows of opportunity come few and far in between given the nature of policy making in Ottawa. Mr. Usher may be more optimistic about the nature of change than I am but let us continue in this direction.
The comparison between Ottawa and Washington as policy making centers mentioned the point that Ottawa's policy making is dominated by policy analysts with little equivalent of the US environment where there are outfits like the Brookings Institute. What he did not mention was also the tradition in the United States where academics are often brought into the policy and governance process directly by appointments to cabinet or parts of the civil service. There has been very little of that in Canada. One notable exception is the Clifford Clark Visiting Economist at the Department of Finance which over the years has among others featured Ken Norrie, Christopher Ragan and Jack Mintz. I think more of this type of exchange activity between federal (and provincial) government ministries would be useful.
His other interesting point regards university research. He writes:
In higher education, there aren't a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound. On student aid and transfers, frankly, they've done little that opposition parties wouldn't have done themselves. Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it's small ball from a government perspective. Where a big re-think is needed is on research. Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: "bring back the status quo ante". That's a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn't excite new ministers. If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.
So the question is, what should those big ideas be? What do we need to do to restore some emphasis on basic research? After all, not everyone is pursuing research in an applied field with government departments or companies looking to award contracts. Is it simply more money for SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR or something more fundamental? Given success rates of about 20 percent in many of the granting councils now, do we actually believe that the only research worth funding comes from the top 20 percent of the distribution or is that simply a self-serving assumption from the top 10 universities in the country? Should we be funding short-term research proposals and projects or a scholar's research career? Should funding be simply geared to really big projects or should the granting councils make more of an effort to distribute smaller amounts that fund scholars with a decent track record? Are my ideas self-serving? Yes, in part they are. Going to conferences and referring to myself as "self-funded" has lost its tone of amusement. But I also suspect there are alot of people in my shoes - even at the big places.