NEW YORK, April 17 - Genome Canada's C$300 million research fund yesterday became fodder for a political firestorm as opposition politicians slammed the foundation as one of a host of slush funds created by Liberal government leaders.
In an audit delivered to Parliament yesterday, Canadian Auditor-General Sheila Fraser scolded the Liberal administration for creating a set of independent non-profit foundations, including Genome Canada, that are funded with public money but operate outside of ministerial control. According to Fraser, these foundations lack accountability and effectively evade parliamentary scrutiny by sequestering public money out of sight.
Genome Canada got only light criticism in the auditor-general's report, which reserved harsher words for the C$500 million Canadian Health Infoway fund and the Green Municipal Funds, which recently received an infusion of C$250 million. (C$1 is worth about $.63.)
Nonetheless, Genome Canada's governance structure "severely limit[s] public access to information," reads the report. "We saw no mechanisms for ensuring responsiveness to the public."
The Fraser audit was immediately championed by Canadian opposition politicians, who accused the Liberal government of diverting money away from parliamentary control.
"Here is $7 billion sitting in a private bank account controlled by the Minister of Finance and nobody else," Canadian Alliance MP John Williams said in yesterday's online Toronto Globe and Mail. "That can't be allowed to stand in a democratic society. The taxpayer needs to know how that money is spent."
Genome Canada spokesperson Anie Perrault defended the foundation's structure and governance. She pointed out that Genome Canada publishes annual reports on its web site, includes rules for codes of conducts and conflicts of interest, and has its financial statements audited by KPMG. The foundation adopted many oversight and good government mechanisms following an earlier auditor-general critique, she said.
Perrault also said that the foundation's independent structure gives it much greater leeway to forge connections between industry, academia, and government.
"We're trying to bring in other partners, either private or public institutions, venture capital, banking, other financial institutions," she said. "That can only be done by a nonprofit corporation like Genome Canada that is independent. It couldn't be done by the government."
Created in 2000, Genome Canada was endowed with $C300 million to spend over five years in order to boost genomics research in the country. To date, it has pledged $C292 million to projects nationwide.