Science Policy Based On Ideology Is Damaging Our Future

James L. Turk calls on Canadians to publicly support Get Science Right – a campaign to reverse the damage being done by the federal government’s misguided science policy.

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CBC Fifth Estate’s Silence of the Labs did a wonderful job of letting Canadians know about how scientific inquiry is being seriously jeopardized by our federal government. This is hardly news to the tens of thousands of academic and government scientists and researchers who have been paying the price of misguided federal science policy for years, but it is vital that the public become aware of the harm the feds are inflicting on everyone’s future so something can be done to reverse the damage.

The scope of the problem is enormous. Silence of the Labs highlighted some of the problems through the moving personal stories of Pat Sutherland, Tom Duck, Peter Ross and David Schindler. Scientific inquiry not consistent with the federal government’s ideology is chopped, as has been so much of the funding for climate science. Data that could be used to judge government policy initiatives is no longer gathered – the most damaging being the elimination of the mandatory long-form census which was the only source of much data essential for municipalities, provincial governments, businesses, social scientists, advocacy groups, Aboriginal organizations and public policy experts.

sciencepolicySilence of the Labs also revealed the tragedy of Canada’s most popular and respected museum, the “Canadian Museum of Civilization”, being renamed and stripped of its mandate to undertake research and to promote critical understanding. I fear the Feds’ renamed “Canadian Museum of History” is being modelled on the Hockey Hall of Fame where we celebrate leaders and symbols rather than advance knowledge and critical understanding.

As there are limits to how much can be covered in a one-hour program, I would like to elaborate on damage being done by the federal government’s science policy that Fifth Estate only touched on, or did not address. It is hard to know where to start, as there is so much that is being done wrong.

In the broadest sense, the Harper Government is trying to politicize every aspect of science – putting its ideological stamp everywhere it can. It muzzles government scientists.  It has transformed our distinguished National Research Council into what the former Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear has dubbed a “concierge” service that offers a single phone number to connect businesses to all their research and development needs. With the elimination of many of its scientists, the NRC’s production of scholarly papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals fell from 1,991 in 2006 to 436 in 2012, and the number of patents generated by NRC fell from 53 in 2006 to 3 in 2012.

The federal government is slowly starving the three federal granting councils (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR).  In real dollar terms, base funding for SSHRC has fallen 10.1% since 2007-2008.  In the same time period, funding for NSERC is down 6.4% and for CIHR is down 7.5%.  Support for the indirect costs of research is down 7.9%.

Through its annual budget allocations, the federal government is also directing how the three federal funding agencies can spend new money allocated for academic research.  It is stacking the governing bodies of those funding agencies with ideological friends and has ensured that fewer than half the members of each are active researchers.

Under pressure from Ottawa, NSERC now spends less on basic research than on what former University of Toronto President David Naylor has term “fettered” (or targeted) research.  It has created the Engage Grants program so NSERC can fund projects “aimed at solving a company-specific problem.”  In its statement of priorities for 2013-14, NSERC indicates it will work with the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP)to assess and implement tools to link the expertise base within the NSERC systems with the new Concierge Service system being developed under the leadership of IRAP.”

SSHRC, under the same set of pressures from the federal government, has just released a request for proposals “to enhance the engagement of industry partners in research partnerships related to the social sciences and humanities as per SSHRC’s key commitment in 2013-14 following the Budget2013.”

In its RFP, SSHRC parrots the Federal Government line: “Investing in partnered research maximizes the value of research investments by accelerating the flow of information, expanding networks and markets, mobilizing new knowledge, and facilitating access to highly skilled labour.”  Just so there is no ambiguity, the industry partners are defined as “a for-profit organization, or an organization that assists, supports, connects and/or represents the common interests of a group of for-profit, incorporated organizations, such as an industry association or a formal or informal consortium.”  Remember this is the rhetoric of the granting council for the social sciences and humanities.

Federal underfunding of the granting councils, taking out the effect of inflation has resulted in a dramatic decline in the success rates for each council’s main research grant program.  For the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the success rate for its main Open Operating Grant is now 9%.

The list could go on. But, I want to end with solutions.  It is not acceptable to be silent about this, hoping that a better day will come.  The damage, if it continues, will cause irreversible harm to Canadians and to our future. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has launched a “Get Science Right” campaign to highlight these problems and build public support for a change in direction.  There are a number of things that each of us can do.  Go to www.GetScienceRight.ca for more information about the problems and suggestions for solutions. 1378236_664887910201484_1451631491_n

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James L. Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers @jameslturk

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