Something is wrong in Canada

Political interference in scientific research must not be tolerated.

“I knew something was wrong in Canada when I turned on World Report one day and heard that scientists were protesting in the streets.”

It was with these words that CBC reporter Chris O’Neill Yates opened a recent town hall meeting about the erosion of scientific research in Canada. You can read a news article on the event here, but I’m going to use this column space to reflect on some of the disturbing trends that were revealed at last week’s event, held at Memorial University in St. John’s.

The ‘Get Science Right’ town hall was part of a national campaign of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which represents university faculty across the country. It was organized locally by Memorial University’s Faculty Association (MUNFA), which went to admirable lengths to make it a provincially accessible event. The event was web-casted live online, a Twitter feed was in active service throughout the evening, and participants from as far afield as Corner Brook were able to engage with questions and comments.

Paying the price

Warming waters. Coastal erosion. Erratic fish behaviour patterns. If climate change is becoming an increasingly potent reality, in a country whose government has by all appearances dedicated itself to the pursuit of oil and to stifling environmental activism, what will be the actual consequences for everyday Canadians? Or, as O’Neill Yates put it: “Who’s going to pay the price?”

Barb Neis, a sociology professor at Memorial and one of the panelists, was quick to respond.

“The public. The Canadian public is going to pay the price. And the global public. The global poor, especially – those who can’t afford to move away [from rising sea levels and other environmental disasters].

Yet at a time when the risks to Canadians are becoming more pronounced, the federal government has been systematically dismantling its own ability to analyze and respond to that risk. By eliminating the mandatory long-form census, by attempting to defund vital climate change research facilities, by transferring public research dollars to the whims of corporate industry (by stacking research granting councils with political and corporate appointees, for instance), and by curtailing scientists’ free speech, the federal government is shutting down Canada’s first line of defence against the risks of a world undergoing rapid change.

Reputation on the line

Paul Snelgrove, a Memorial biology professor and director of the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network, pointed out another sobering fact: Canada’s international reputation is suffering as a result of federal Conservative policy. One would think that a country’s scientific reputation would stand apart from the machinations of its politicians, but in this case government intervention and manipulation of science is, increasingly, turning Canada into more and more of an international pariah when it comes to research.

“When I go off to conferences, I used to be proud of being Canadian,” Snelgrove recounts. He now faces a very different reaction from his colleagues around the world. “’What’s going on?’ they ask me. ‘You guys used to be so good…’”.

This isn’t just a matter of concern for established scientists like Snelgrove. When a country becomes known for the poor quality of its research and the scheming interventions of its politicians into scholarship, it will deter future generations of students from pursuing degrees here. It will become more difficult for research agencies and universities to recruit quality researchers. And with a diminishing pool to draw from, eventually even the tech companies the Conservatives claim they’re trying to help will find themselves suffering.

In the United States, it was pointed out, federal scientists have much greater freedom to speak out about their research and discuss their work with media and the public. It’s the Conservatives who have driven Canada down a dark path of government-controlled censorship; a dubious distinction, and one which must be fought at every opportunity by those who who are able.

The need for basic science

Much of the scuffle has surrounded pressures coming from the federal government (and, to be honest, from other political elites: provincial governments, corporations, university bureaucrats) for researchers to spend less time doing ‘basic science’ and more time focusing on ‘applied, solution-oriented research’. What does this mean exactly? Essentially, researchers want the freedom to study whatever they want to study, even if it serves no immediately discernible purpose. Bureaucrats – in governments, corporations, and universities alike – dislike this notion, and want to see tangible, profitable results from research that is paid for by public (or corporate) dollar.

On the surface it sounds like a sensible concern. Why should public dollars fund eggheads who want to study the mating cycles of bumblebees? Or the flight patterns of birds? Especially when there are shortages of hospital beds, potholes in the streets and children starving?

“Governments controlling science doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the time of Galileo, it doesn’t work today.”  – Paul Snelgrove

‘But wait now!’, reply the scientists. Sure, the things we study might not seem to have any important application in the world. But then, neither did any of the research that eventually led to computers, x-rays, airplanes or DNA. All of these too seemed pie-in-the-sky esoterica at one point in time. If today’s ‘solution-oriented’ corporate controls had been driving the research agenda 50 years ago, we might have none of these things. Most useful knowledge and earth-changing inventions start off as bizarre, incomprehensible ivory tower nonsense. But give scientists the freedom to pursue those bizarre things they explore, and you wind up with modern civilization.

Well fine, reply the dollar-heads, you can study what you want but simply show that it contributes or could contribute to something useful.

Of course, knowledge doesn’t work like that. You don’t know what knowledge is useful and what isn’t until you’ve learned it, any more than you know what will happen when you mix two chemicals together until, well, you do it. Increasing knowledge is always a shot in the dark, which sometimes pans out and sometimes doesn’t. Or it pans out in unexpected ways years (decades, centuries) down the road after generations of appearing fruitless. Trying to channel research into ‘productive’ directions is akin to the royal patrons who gave medieval doctors money to invent a more effective form of bloodletting to cure cancer, or refine a more effective potion of pigeon dung to cure kidney stones. Meanwhile, the weirdos who wanted to waste public dollars on theories that the earth was round or that diseases were caused by invisible germs would have been burned at the stake (the medieval version of de-funding research).

As Snelgrove put it: “Governments controlling science doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the time of Galileo, it doesn’t work today.”

At the very least, government-controlled science condemns Canada’s scientists and researchers to mediocrity. Without the freedom to pursue their own course, our scientists will make no great discoveries, and establish no important new fields. They might help refine the state of knowledge a bit here and there, but great discoveries require the freedom to pursue research that is daring and not concerned with the profit outcome.

The distinction might be illustrated with a painting analogy. A painter could be commissioned to paint a picture of a sailboat; or a painter could be given a grant and told to paint whatever inspires them. The commissioned painter might produce a decent painting of a sailboat, but the artist given personal discretion could produce a masterpiece – a Mona Lisa. Canada’s scientists are being turned into the equivalent of commercial, commissioned painters; thereby ensuring that Canada will never produce a masterpiece nor achieve any meaningful significance in the art (or in this case, science) world.

No future, either

One of the more poignant moments of the panel came during the question and answer session. An audience member, who is now enjoying quite a successful corporate career, regretted the lack of choices that drove him to where he is today. Coming out of university, he earnestly wanted a job doing work that would benefit the public and the environment and do social good, but found nothing available outside of corporate industry.

“Who’s gonna take a $30,000 job at a university when they’re offered a $100,000 job working for a corporation?” he asked.

The growing inequality between public and corporate research, he said, will make the choice even more stark for future generations of graduates. And universities like Memorial are aiding and abetting that process by accepting corporate research dollars.

“The oil production background at universities is driving researchers into corporations rather than into universities and public science,” he said. “That research is not going to the public good, to ensuring and protecting our future, but into who can get that mineral out of the ground the fastest.”

What is to be done?

While the focus has been on the federal government, important questions need to be asked of the provincial governments as well. The federal government might be pushing this agenda, but it is provinces that wind up paying the price of poor research: through environmental damages, poor labour market policies, poorly researched service provision, and more. The provinces have a significant stake in what is happening federally. Provincial governments must take action. And, since we are closer to our provincial governments than our federal one, we must pressure those provincial governments to be more outspoken.

“What do we have in a democracy that’s important? We have information. We have the free flow of information.”  – Bill Montevecchi

As we must also pressure those whose voice carries weight at the national and international level. One of the tragedies of the current situation is that those who could speak out influentially, often do not. Last week’s panel excepted, far too few academics with tenure – a form of job security which at least guarantees academic freedom, and the right to voice politically unpopular opinions – are speaking out. They might not lose their jobs, but the risk of losing prestige and grants – or perhaps the insulation they enjoy from the worst effects of corporatization of research – seems to lead many tenured professors to self-censor themselves.

“The most depressing thing is that people don’t use their tenure. So why do we even have it?” lamented Bill Montevecchi, another panelist and university research professor.

Ultimately, the solutions are political. Small gains can certainly be made at institutional levels – speaking out against corporate agendas at universities and funding arrangements that give industry or government control over research directions, for instance. But insofar as the worst of the damage is being facilitated and encouraged by a democratically elected federal government (albeit one elected by a minority of the population, under Canada’s woefully antiquated electoral process), the solution must involve political activity to elect accountable governments that respect scientific research and academic freedom, and political activism to hold governments in check when they exceed the bounds of democratic decency.

After all, commented Montevecchi in response to one of the facilitator’s questions: “What do we have in a democracy that’s important? We have information. We have the free flow of information.”

“What do we lose by not having science?” asked the journalist.

“We lose democracy,” replied the scientist.

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