15 May 2009

A mere pittance

Just a few other observations come to mind at the end of the week on the province’s newest old research and development agency.

The original post – that highlighted the sooper sekrit powers the R & D agency has – can be found here.

1.  Glenn Janes,  The chief executive officer of the thing, was appointed in December 2007. 

2.  The legislation to reinvent the agency was passed through the legislature in December 2008, isn’t in force yet and is already being amended in a bill currently being rushed through the legislature before the nurses’ strike hits.  It’s a council or agency or thingy since one of the changes being made will give cabinet the power to change the name whenever it feels like it.

3.  On the one hand, support for research and development is good.  On the other hand, $25 million is a paltry sum.  Well, paltry compared to what will be flowing from the oil and gas sector – for example – under offshore board regulations

The first three projects will pump considerably more than that annually.  As The Telegram described it in February:

The new rules require companies to spend a percentage of their annual offshore revenue on research, development, education and training activities in the province.

The rate will vary from year to year. This year, for instance, it is 0.36 per cent.

Basically, one project offshore will pump more cash into research and development than the provincial government alone.  We are talking hundreds of millions from Big Oil thanks to the offshore board.

4.  Had the government been really serious about R & D, they could have worked a deal with the oil companies to channel the Big Oil R & D payouts through the revamped agency/council/ thingy.  Since they appointed Janes way back in 2007, it’s not like they didn’t have time to work that into the Hebron talks or something.

5.  Speaking of Hebron talks, getting excited about $25 million in funding for R & D seems a bit odd given that the provincial government settled for a flat amount from Hebron.  That flat amount  - $120 million over the entire 25 year lifespan of the project - is way below what the project would have had to put into the provincial economy if the offshore board regs were applied. 

Put another way:  Big Oil involved in Hebron will shell out about less than $5.0 million a year.

Put another way still, Hibernia alone has put on average almost $20 million a year into local research and development since first oil in 1997.

6.  A couple of years ago there was plenty of tough talk, but the reality is that both the royalty deal and especially the R & D aspects of the Hebron project are actually a lot less than they should have been.

That’s pretty ironic, considering the Premier was quoted by the Financial Post two years ago talking about the need – supposedly – to get more out of Big Oil, not the less he settled for:

"In these times of extremely high oil prices where consumers are bearing the burden and companies are taking in exorbitant profits, the time has come for new arrangements for projects on a go-forward basis."

It was a new arrangement, of course, just one that ensures the companies keep more of their cash from Hebron.

7.  When it comes to the independence needed to run a successful research and development operation, the new agency won’t have it.  The chief executive officer is appointed by cabinet – not the agency’s board – and all staff hiring must be approved by the minister. 

With any R & D agency like this, autonomy should be the watchword.  Think of the research successes at Memorial University and its associated agencies.  Instead what we are getting is like a think tank where the thinking is watched over by Joan Burke and her colleagues. 

That never works well, especially if this new agency is going to be funding social science and policy research. 

All of this is a big shame really, since the guy in charge is evidently a sharp fellow.  Too bad he is working under such obvious hindrances.  It would be hard to imagine Janes came up with these himself working from what he described as a clean sheet of paper.

Maybe in a few years time, some other administration of whatever political stripe can  fix the fairly obvious problems with what started out as a really good idea.

40 years ago.