Illustration by Kumeshan Pather

Science After Harper

“Canada is back, my friends,” Prime Minister Trudeau told delegates at the Paris climate conference in late 2015.

Trudeau’s cheerful declaration highlighted public hopes for radical change from his predecessor Stephen Harper’s approach to climate specifically, and more generally, to science.

Harper’s government provoked public outrage by “muzzling” government scientists. As civil servants, these scientists were already barred from commenting on policy; under Harper’s new rules, they found it difficult to talk to reporters at all. At Environment Canada, for instance, communications staff vetted media inquiries, delayed responses, told scientists how to respond, and monitored interviews, even going so far as to shadow the government’s own researchers at the 2012 International Polar Year conference, which Canada hosted in Montreal.

The government had also cut funding to prominent research programs like the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), involved in climate change research, and the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), where researchers manipulated entire lakes to study ecosystem change. In its report, “Vanishing Science,” the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada writes that cuts to federal scientific agencies eliminated the equivalent of more than 2,000 full-time jobs between 2008 and 2013.

In protest, scientists took their white lab coats to the streets to hold a mock funeral for the “death of evidence” in summer 2012, and again to “stand up for science” in fall 2013.

Soon after the October 2015 election of the Liberal government, federal scientists were taking media calls more freely. In December 2016, they won protection, enshrined in their collective agreements, for their right to speak publicly about their findings.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy and an organizer of the Death of Evidence rally, says protection in their labour contract is better than legislative protection, because a law can be revoked. “But it’s actually much, much harder for a future government to reopen the collective agreement and take something out, so this is really one of the strongest safeguards for science integrity that we can conceive of.”

Even before Harper, publicly funded science was far from healthy, and reforms have a long way to go.

It’s all too easy to look back at Harper, look south at Trump (the U.S. president has repeatedly characterized climate change as a hoax, and within weeks of his inauguration climate information had disappeared from some government websites), and assume that science in Canada is now secure. But coming back from recent extremes will not be enough. Even before Harper, publicly funded science was far from healthy, and reforms have a long way to go.

The science we pay for

Research work falls on a spectrum between basic and applied. Basic research is motivated simply by what we don’t know, whereas applied research involves a need to know for a specific purpose. Basic research makes discoveries available for application, and applied research sparks new basic questions. For example, today’s applied research seeking to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide is rooted in basic science from the late 1800s, when Svante Arrhenius, curious about the trigger for ice ages, calculated the temperature effects of heat-absorbing gases.

Clearly, governments need applied research to drive innovation in strategic areas, improve government services, and guide policy decisions. But governments also play a crucial role in supporting basic research, keeping its large yet unpredictable benefits flowing to society.

The searching, skeptical nature of scientific work helps it resist manipulation by outside interests, even in applied research with particular goals. But there is still plenty of room for distortions in the way science is supported and the way its results are used.

The founding director of the ELA, David Schindler, sounds a sharp warning against complacency regarding federal and provincial science. Writing in Alberta Views in June 2017, and drawing on his own career experience, Schindler identifies an erosion of scientists’ independence and traces it back to the 1960s and 1970s, when scientific agencies such as the Fisheries Research Board of Canada were moved inside the civil service. Scientists’ work was buried under bureaucracy added in the interest of “business models,” and political interference favoured business interests, overriding warnings about overfishing and industrial harm to rivers. Schindler calls on Canadians to “stand on guard” for science and not trust that the government will take care of it.

Much scientific research, despite being funded by government payments, takes place outside of government agencies. Conducted by academics based in universities, this “extramural” research has been somewhat sheltered from political and corporate interests. Under the Conservative government, academic scientists still used federal funds to study climate change. Highly visible university–government partnerships like PEARL faced cuts, but other funds have been awarded to university researchers through granting councils, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which operate at greater distance from the government. Jeremy Kerr, a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, explains that the NSERC Discovery Grants program is a subsection of the granting council with its own operations. “So that meant that even under Harper, their capacity to kind of reach in and turn the knobs that would shut off the research funding for some sectors was a little bit limited,” he says.

Still, over recent decades, both political and corporate interests have wormed their way into the funding ecosystem for academic research, eroding scientists’ autonomy. The details of the transformation are different from what Schindler observed as the government absorbed fisheries research, but the results are strikingly similar.

Political and corporate interests have wormed their way into the funding ecosystem for academic research, eroding scientists’ autonomy.

An academic scientist working for a university (funded in part by the province) can spend some salaried time on research activities, but otherwise relies on separate grants to cover the expenses of a research program – paying graduate students for day-to-day research activities, and purchasing supplies for fieldwork or chemicals used in a lab, for example.

Universities may provide internal grants, but often these are small amounts, start-up funds only, matching funds only, or tied to preset priorities.

For applied research, grants may come from industry or from non-governmental organizations with particular objectives, but most support for basic research comes from governments. The federal government supports research primarily through three granting councils: NSERC, for natural sciences and engineering; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, for social sciences and humanities; and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, for health sciences. Using peer review, the councils allocate funds to the most promising research programs.

Sometimes the public needs answers in specific areas, and governments target funding toward those areas. Kerr says that’s not a problem in itself.

“From my point of view,” Kerr says, “the challenge arises when governments begin to say that they’re no longer curious about other research areas – they only want to fund the stuff that they want short-term answers to.”

In June 2017, the Global Young Academy reported on a survey of Canadian researchers suggesting a shift toward applied topics. Kerr was one of the authors. They write, “Strikingly, between the periods 2006–2010 and 2011–2015, the proportion of researchers who only conducted fundamental research collapsed, declining from 24% to 1.6%, and those who reported conducting no use-inspired or applied research declined from 47% to 25%.” Changes to available research funding were cited as the cause of this shift by almost half of the respondents.

The trouble with trying to fund only short-term results, Kerr says, is that “most short-term answers to questions rely on discoveries that come from curiosity-driven work.”

Letting science off the leash

That’s the key message from Canada’s Fundamental Science Review 2017, a report commissioned by Canada’s minister of science, Kirsty Duncan, and released in April 2017. Often referred to as the Naylor Report, the review found that overall funding has flatlined for a decade, reducing its real dollar value, while the number of researchers applying has grown, making grants smaller, harder to get, or both. The report also stressed that funding has shifted away from “investigator-led” (basic) research toward “priority-driven and partnership-oriented research.”

The “partnerships” in question apply university research to business partners’ needs. For example, NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grants support projects with expected industrial applications. An industry partner covers as little as half the cost, effectively doubling the value they receive versus doing their own research in house. The university offers its facilities and researchers, including student researchers who gain experience, and potentially industry contacts.

NSERC tries to protect the public interest in this research by requiring that results be published, not secret. But intellectual property agreements may still restrict who can benefit from this process commercially. And as sociology professor Claire Polster at the University of Regina argues, partnership funding skews applied research toward the needs of the private sector. Groups without the means to sponsor research are left out.

The Naylor Report called for $405 million in new funding for investigator-led research through the granting councils. But the report’s release was delayed until after the 2017 federal budget, which left research funding flat (after an increase of $95 million in 2016) and even reshuffled planned funding into new targeted initiatives.

Declining funding for basic research is costing jobs and discoveries, but more subtly, it’s also leaving some researchers unable to work effectively. As the funding process becomes more competitive, researchers are spending more time applying (and reapplying) for grants, unable to proceed with research until an application is successful. Kerr estimated that developing a researcher’s skills takes hundreds of thousands of dollars over some 15 years of subsidized training. “And then we are stranding them in universities by not funding the last step of that process and allowing them to conduct research,” he says.

The Naylor Report also noted ongoing challenges in building equity and diversity in research communities, including slow (but substantial) progress on gender disparities, and a pressing need for more Indigenous researchers. As much as funding independently curious researchers may foster wider discoveries, funding diverse researchers is expected to serve wider needs. “We have an opportunity here,” Imogen Coe, Ryerson University’s dean of science, says, “that as we reinvest, we can build that in, so that everybody gets to contribute and everybody gets to benefit.”

Out of sight: the invasive root of the problem

The Fundamental Science Review and its emphasis on investigator-led research appear to have wide support among scientists, who responded with workshops, letters to MPs and a Twitter campaign (#supportthereport). In August, the Canadian Association of University Teachers announced a campaign calling on the federal government to implement the recommendations and “Get Science Right.”
But Polster is concerned that the focus on independent research, while important, misses some of the larger context of funding issues, and risks leaving a root cause unaddressed.

In 2015, she and Janice Newson published a collection of essays titled A Penny For Your Thoughts: How corporatization devalues teaching, research, and public service in Canada’s universities. They write that corporatization is a neoliberal process, making universities “work more for, with, and as businesses.”

Not only has research funding tilted priorities and partnerships, but, Polster writes, overall university funding has tilted from core support toward research. In the 1990s, cuts to provincial transfer payments reduced core university funding. Later, instead of restoring that core support, the federal government provided more research funding. Grant revenue became a bigger part of the overall resources for a university, and also took on a greater symbolic function as part of the university’s reputation.

In order to do their work, scientists have no choice but to pursue basic research funding. But Polster argues that they and their supporters should also address corporatization and its corrosive effects on social relations in the university.

Increasingly, she writes, universities expect their faculty to pursue research funding as part of their contribution to the institution. Those who receive the most grant money are rewarded with recognition, positive job evaluations, and greater input on decisions within the university. In this way, the university is adopting a businesslike focus on revenue over public service.

This dynamic is not surprising, since universities get more funding when their researchers do. Polster pointed to the Canada Research Chairs program as an example, where the number of research chairs awarded to a university depends on the total funding received at that university from the granting councils.

Polster says, “There are a lot of personal interests and institutional interests that are penetrating or infiltrating into what should just be a question of, ‘What’s important knowledge to produce, and what’s the best way of producing this, for the public, rather than for me or for my university?’”

Still, Polster sees the concern about funding as a positive step, which has researchers looking more closely at the changing state of universities and how that affects their work. “I think we still have the opportunity to resist corporatization,” she says.

Polster encourages activists to build alliances between universities and communities, both for directly resisting the intrusion of narrow interests, and for crowding them out by growing the university’s public service role. For example, a campaign against intellectual property restrictions on research results could gather broad community support. Shifting some applied research toward community rather than corporate needs could seed ideas for further collective action.

The danger is in fixing a symptom, like muzzling, or the imbalance between applied and basic research funding, and then assuming everything is okay.

“There’s a bit, I think, of the Trudeau effect, that everybody’s now thinking, ‘Harper’s gone, everything’s going to be fine,’” Polster says. “But I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

Laura Stewart grew up on a small cattle farm in southeast Saskatchewan, studied biology and geography, and surveyed native prairie plants for oilfield project reviews, before turning to activism and journalism. She is the 2017 Magazines Canada Grands Prix Fellow.

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