Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Future of Defence Research in Canada

The story of the day is that we now have more information about the demise of the Security and Defence Forum [SDF].  It is a part of Canada's Department of National Defence responsible for reaching out to the academic community and beyond.  It had a budget of $2.5 million, but that is going down to $.5million.  The main expense of SDF had been funding research centres throughout Canada--about thirteen of them.  Most of these centres are highly dependent on SDF money for their existence with a few notable exceptions.  Most will have to fold or reduce their activities significantly.  I don't know what the shared one between the University of Montreal and McGill will do since I left the organization last year (more on that below).

It does seem strange that such a small expense (given the size of defence spending) would be seen as a key cut to be made, especially when the spokesperson for the Minister of Defence says how valuable the Ministry sees its interactions with academics (even if DND ignores most studies).

However, I understand why DND administrators would not want to pay for administrators at universities, which is where a fair amount of money goes in the research centres.  There is something to be said for providing the basics so that the centres can then raise money through other sources, but I don't think SDF planned to have its money spent on secretaries and graduate student assistants focused on admin work.

The true losses of SDF's demise will be:
  • Funding graduate students.  The Canadian model of graduate funding is somewhat different than the American one, as the primary funding agency for the social sciences--SSHRC--gives most of its graduate student funding to students in their first few years.  Dissertation funding--getting money to go to places to get the data, do the interviews, and so on--is not as readily available.  DND via SDF provided pre- and post-docs which were quite valuable in helping graduate students complete their research projects. 
  • Facilitating outreach.  While DND's public affairs section will still exist, SDF was incredibly helpful in arranging my first sets of interviews with Canadian officers.  The public affairs events tend to be very much pro-Canadian Forces publicity events, which makes heaps of sense.  SDF was more focused on helping researchers do their jobs, rather than just selling the Forces.  Which, in my experience, actually did a better job of selling the forces.
I do think it is understandable that DND would question whether they were getting what they were paying for.  The idea was to support research related to Canadian defence, which is perhaps parochial but entirely sensible for a government agency.  Some research centres focused more broadly on a wide array of security issues that may or may not be related to Canadian defence.  One of the ironies of my local situation is that I was doing the most stuff related to Canadian defence and much of the outreach/dissemination via media appearances, but did not find much support from my campus's research centre.  Most of my SDF money was from applications to the Special Projects grant, not from the local centre since it had other priorities (which is why I left the centre).

The new plan is unclear, but it may be the case that SDF only funds the Special Projects.  That would be ok but not great.  Tis better than issuing calls for specific projects to be funded, as leaving the agenda setting in the hands of the scholars is probably the best to maximize creativity.  The big question is whether SDF will still fund pre- and post-docs.  I sure hope so, as profs can find other ways to fund their research, centres can find other ways to have conferences, but graduate students need some help to complete their work.

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