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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2008

Feds’ Commercial Focus Puts Basic Research at Risk

By Penni Stewart
You will have noticed higher ed­ucation policy played no role during the recent federal election. The platform of the winning Conservatives was silent on the subject. Why seems obvious…the election campaign was increasingly consum­ed by economic crisis and leadership issues. But the deeper reason for this silence is important for the education community and CAUT, as the national representative of academic staff at Canada’s colleges and universities.

Canada is one of the few nations without a national department of education. We do not have one be­cause education is under provincial jurisdiction and there would certainly be objections from the provinces. But this doesn’t mean there is no federal policy. On the contrary, fed­eral policies funnel about $3 billion a year to the provinces through the Canada Social Transfer, funding for the three granting agencies, and a combination of policies enacted over the last decade that have done much to transform post-secondary research.

These include the establishment of the Canada Foundation for Inno­vation in 1997, the transformation of the Medical Research Council into the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in April 2000 — coincident with an increase in funding, the allocation of significant ad­ditional funds to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and, to a lesser extent, the Social Sciences and Humanities Re­search Council, the introduction of Millennium Scholarships, Canada Research Chairs, Canada Graduate Scholarships and payments to institutions for indirect research costs.

In The Way it Works: Inside Ottawa, author Eddie Goldenberg describes how innovation was made possible in the absence of a federal organization dedicated to higher education. Ideas were advanced by individual elites, then formulated into policies by a circle of elites and sold directly to then-prime minister Jean Chrétien. The elites included a few researchers, the presidents of the four or five most powerful universities, federal deputy ministers and people such as Goldenberg in the prime minister’s office. Opportunities for higher education communities to provide input on their position were extremely limited.

Given the secretive nature of such policymaking what can we say about the higher education policy of Ste­phen Harper’s government? The Conservatives built on the pre­vious Liberal platform, but where they differed was in their pursuit of commercialization and the attendant integration of the private and post-secondary sectors. The policy pursued by the present government, outlined in the 2006 Advantage Ca­nada plan and the 2007 strategy do­cument, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, raises disquieting questions about the future of post-secondary research programs.

Commercialization is being pursued largely through the Networks of Centres of Excellence programs. A Liberal initiative, these programs involve partnerships between academic researchers and industry de­signed to make research commercially viable. The Conservatives pro­mise to introduce business-led networks and establish a private sector advisory board to foster private-sector involvement with research networks. Partnerships between col­leges and the private sector will be enhanced through a permanent Col­lege and Community Innovation Program.

What is the effect of the government’s embrace of commercialization on basic research? The prestigious scientific journal Nature has raised this twice in the past year. In a searing editorial in February, Nature referred to the Harper gov­ernment’s “manifest disregard for science,” voicing particular concern about the impartiality and indepen­dence of the new Science, Techno­logy and Innovation Council, esta­blished to phase out the office of the national science advisor. Nature also cited the requirement that grants be partnered and the result that many worthwhile projects remain unfunded or underfunded. In a September article, Nature cri­ticized the government’s science policy for placing “undue emphasis on commercially focused research over long term basic research.”

Along with an accelerating general emphasis on commercialization, there is a continuing effort to steer research to government priorities. Particularly, funding will be directed to four research priority areas designated by the Council of Cana­dian Academies — environmental science and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies. The granting agencies also face increased demands for accountability in the form of more reporting, more public and private partnerships and more engagement with the community and business sector.

The integration of corporate and academic worlds proceeds apace. In 1996, SSHRC’s 22-member board included 11 academics, three university administrators, one student, one individual from the private sec­tor, two SSHRC officials and four NGO executives. In 2001 the SSHRC board was composed of 10 academics, five administrators, four corporate executives, two SSHRC officials and one NGO exe­cutive. By 2008, the board was reduced to 19 members with just three academics, seven university administrators, seven corporate executives, one SSHRC official and one NGO member.

The Conservative government’s reinforcement of corporate and governmental research and development agendas represents a bias in favour of capital. But the more fundamental problem is that it fa­vours the inherently short-term and opportunistic needs of business and government over the long-term needs of science, the arts and humanities and society itself.