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October 25, 2014

Harper and Canadian research

Reuel S. Amdur

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On October 7, the Royal Society of Canada Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences, issued a position paper, "Driving Growth through Research." In the paper is a recommendation that Canadian research funding should be increased at least to the average level of OECD and G8 countries.

As well, it calls on government “to develop a ten-year plan for research, innovation and skill development, in consultation with the academic and business communities.”  The paper expresses the conviction that “research should be central to evidence-based policy development.

It makes the case for research, both basic and applied, in promoting a competitive economy. 

An aside to research in the humanities is really a tack-on to secure all the bases for the Societies constituents.  It is a stretch to include the humanities and the creative arts into the same package as applied and basic research in the sciences, and in fact the brief remarks addressing humanities and artistic endeavors are weak.  These areas are important but need to be defended on other grounds than economic development.

Because of our limited investments in research, both by government and the private sector, we face “the risk of lagging behind,” in spite of research productivity, the Society contends.  It pushes for a focus on “a high quality of education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” and it notes the fact that Canada lags behind other major developed countries in production of Ph.D.’s. 

The paper is interesting for what it says, but there are matters that it does not discuss. 

For example, to pick up on the last matter, getting a Ph.D. can be very expensive, and it is not necessarily rewarding down the road.  As a result, we lose many Ph.D.’s to opportunities in other countries, especially the U.S.

More basically, the Harper government is not hospitable to research or for that matter to science more generally.  The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), in their October 13, 2013 Education Review, quotes from an article in Nature from the previous year:

“Governments come and go, but scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits and still be expected to function.  Nor can applied research thrive when basic research is struggling.” 

This has been characterized by a decline of funding for basic research and a targeting of new funding to projects that appear to offer the promise of immediate commercial value.”  And “Overall federal support for granting councils is down 7.5 per cent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2007-08.”   As well, “The 2012 and 2013 Federal Budgets earmarked and fettered all new research funding to ‘academic-industry’ partnerships. ‘”  Looking at medical research, CAUT comments that “the obsession with commercial outcomes has encouraged an emphasis on minor modifications to existing drugs and devices, rather than fundamental explorations of illness and prevention.”

Let us turn to two examples of Harper government vandalism in the area of research. 

The excuse was that the census was too intrusive.  Harper did not have the same concern for privacy in his so-called anti-bullying omnibus bill which, among other things, lets internet service providers hand over to police customer information without danger of civil or criminal liability, nor did it prevent the government from spying on Indian social worker Cindy Blackstock because they did not like her advocacy activities. 

Elimination of the long-form census, with its rich collection of data, was a loss not just to social scientists but also to policy-makers and –implementers at all levels of government and to business.

Then there is the federal cancellation of support for the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a program unique in the world.

ELA has produced a massive quantity of scientific reports, enriching our knowledge about what happens to our lakes and the environment.  Stephen Harper was prepared to let this important research facility die, along with its work in progress.  Fortunately, the Ontario Liberal government stepped in to save it.

Research, and science itself, will need to wait for the demise of this government before it sees a respect on the part of government and support from it for their role.

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