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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2009

Anti-Science Sentiment in Canadian Government

By Penni Stewart
For the past six months CAUT has been at the forefront of a campaign to raise awareness of the many problematic aspects of the federal government’s research agenda. Partly this is about money. In the recent federal budget, not only did Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government fail to provide new research dollars to the three granting councils, it actually reduced their funding. The National Research Council of Canada also suffered cuts and Genome Canada received no mention.

The lack of money for research threatens the health of the research community and increases the risk of losing academics to the United States, where budget numbers for research and development are increasing under the new administration. As it points out repeatedly, the Harper government has allocated new funding for research infrastructure. It loves new gear, as do its recipients — until they run out of funds needed to actually conduct research.

The result is to leave major research facilities and projects stranded, without the operational support to sustain their researchers. For example, the Polar Continental Shelf Project has to cut its support to researchers working in isolated areas throughout the Canadian Arctic because of rising transportation costs, yet an $11 million infrastructure grant will go towards doubling the capacity of the PCSP’s facility in Resolute.

At our recent CAUT council meeting, professor Ryan McKay of the University of Alberta, and professor Richard Peltier of the University of Toronto, described scrambling for operational grants in a system where funding changes from year to year and grants are regularly eliminated. This has resulted in underused facilities and the abandonment of promising research. Too often, the money provided to universities for “indirect costs” is not funneled to researchers, exacerbating the difficulties.

A second issue is research priorities. Professor Peltier described how the government’s redirection of money to targeted programs has stranded productive ongoing research in areas no longer deemed a priority. While there is a legitimate government role in determining national priorities, a more prudent government would involve the scientific community through peer review and as advisors. Of course, this is the government that eliminated the position of National Science Advisor in 2008.

The CAUT Council meeting also heard from Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, who spoke of the devastating impact of underfunding on social scientists and humanities scholars. Not only does the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council receive far less funding per capita than the other federal granting agencies, the January budget directs new granting-council money to areas that exclude the majority of academics from disciplines in the social sciences. Humanities subjects lost out entirely.

In 2007 new funding was directed to management, business and finance research and in 2008 to research targeting the impact of environmental changes and economic development in northern communities.

While unwilling to sustain the researchers we have, the government has established some new prizes, such as the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. Twenty chairs will be funded under the program that gives $10 million over seven years to each chairholder and their research team to develop research programs in environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and information and communication technologies.

The program is designed to bring some of the world’s top researchers to Canada. There are no academics from Canadian universities on the board that will select the winners and few on the panels established to review university proposals.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted Derek Burney, chairman of the selection board, saying he didn’t expect the funding to flow to researchers already working in Canada.

This raises several questions: Is it a sensible use of tax dollars to pay for “international superstars” when many top Canadian researchers and a new generation of researchers in this country are being starved for funds? Why can’t our government provide increased funding to the contemporary Canadian community of researchers? Is there any evidence that buying foreign superstars, rather than properly supporting young researchers and those already doing outstanding work is a better way to advance science in Canada?

And there is still another worrying aspect of the Conservative government’s view of science, which is the suppression of scientific studies that could harm industry or limit development.

Last year Health Canada refused to release findings from a report on the risk of cancer associated with chrysotile asbestos. It saw the light of day only because of an Access to Information request. More recently, witness the release of an expert panel report on the woodland-caribou habitat, to which Environment Canada added an unsigned preface undermining the scientific findings. The more effective stra­tegy is simply to prevent studies from taking place as seen in the government’s recent decision to exempt the new stimulus infrastructure projects from environmental review.

It is ironic that the Harper government seems to be continuing the scientific policies of the Bush administration at the very point when the Americans have rejected that approach and are doubling federal spending for basic research.

A final word about another way in which our government is continuing the Bush agenda is its response to the deplorable situations of two Canadian citizens — Omar Khadr, the only citizen of a Western nation currently still detained at Guantanamo Bay, and Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Montrealer who remains in limbo at Canada’s embassy in Sudan.

At our Council meeting, delegates passed a motion calling on the Conservative government to end this debacle and bring Abdelrazik back to Canada. The same should be done for Khadr. By its sheer heartlessness and doomed allegiance to the Bush legacy, the government brings shame on itself and embarrassment to our nation.