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Are the conservatives really so bad for science?

May 4, 2011

What an election! Historic and crazy.

The Harper Conservatives got their majority, the NDP demolished the BQ to become not only the voice of Quebec but also the nation’s official opposition, and the once-mighty Liberal Party of Canada risks obsolescence. Oh, and the Green Party won its first ever seat by defeating an incumbent cabinet minister.

Basically, just like I called it.

But what does it all mean for science policy?

Well, it means the Conservatives will pass the budget that brought them down, likely without major changes. Thus, some new college and polytechnic research chairs, 10 additional CERCs, bonus money for Perimeter and the Institut National d’Optique, and money for the Brain Canada initiative. There will be more money for Genome Canada and increases in tricouncil funding, including indirect funds. I’m pleased that the R&D Review Panel will be allowed to table its report on government support for business R&D, with the government promising to take action on its recommendations.

So that’s the short term, which doesn’t look too bad. What about the long term?

Well, here things are a little more speculative, since the platform doesn’t describe much of a vision. Surely, there may be some lean times ahead – the government is vowing to cut spending to eliminate the deficit and – with a majority government – there’s no reason to doubt they’ll do so. I suspect the public service is in for some pretty big cuts, which means researchers at NRC and other government agencies will likely lose jobs. If previous budgets are any indication, we’ll continue to see an emphasis on programs to attract and encourage top-level talent in place of across-the-board increases for all. And I’m pretty certain the emphasis on results-oriented research will continue to grow.

Now, none of these guesses (and they really are guesses) seems to me terribly partisan or particular to the Conservatives, and I’m pretty sure I’d have made the same guesses if the Liberals had won the election (I wouldn’t have been able to even guess what would happen had the NDP won…).

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and worry among researchers about a hidden Conservative agenda.

Perhaps the most clearly articulated example is provided by David Ng on Discover magazine’s blog. A thought-provoking piece, Ng attempts a rational, scientific look at the evidence to suggest a Harper majority will be bad for science. While he makes some important and valid points, I think his overall conclusion is somewhat clouded by anti-Harper bias and an assumption that general trends are indicative of anti-science sentiment.

With all due respect to David, I’m going to go through his main points, since he does a good job of laying out what I think are the main worries many researchers share:

1. Harper’s government is not scientifically literate. I would agree with this – in fact, it’s one of my main bones with the Conservative government. But I would argue that this leads to sins of omission, rather than sins of comission. Science just doesn’t hit their radar often enough. Hopefully, this can be changed. I find the ad hominem attack on former Junior Science Minister Goodyear’s alleged creationism, frankly, tired and petty. Yeah, I get it, but I’ve seen no evidence that his personal religious beliefs have had any impact on policy.

2.  Harper’s government made climate change science an ideological issue. Well, no. Climate change science became an ideological issue been since long before Harper became PM. That’s because climate change science is a political issue. It’s a political issue for governments around the world. For Stephane Dion it was a political issue too, it’s just that most scientists supported his politics. Look, I think this is where scientists need to sharpen their game. It’s our job to do the science, and to do it right. The Harper government “supports the science” by publicly endorsing the basic tenets of climate change, but they don’t do anything about it. That’s politics. The Liberals chose not to do anything about it when they were in power. And then Dion campaigned on making climate change a central part of their economic platform and the public rejected them soundly. That’s politics. That’s not science. Yes, there are issues around cutting funding to PEARL and the government is likely to make investments in oil sands research as part of its climate and energy policies instead of renewable energy. But these sorts of decisions, never mind reshaping economic policy to account for climate change science, are economic and political decisions, not scientific ones.

3. The muzzling of federal scientists. I agree this is troublesome. And it would be nice to have these restrictions removed or loosened – which may occur under a majority government. But again, this doesn’t demonstrate anything particular about the Harper government’s feelings about science. The Harper minority governments were notorious for controlling all government messaging. Senior bureaucrats from government departments had to receive approval and talking points from the PMO before they could speak on record at public events. To my knowledge, the government didn’t prevent federal scientists from publishing, attending conferences, or discussing results with colleagues – all necessary to scientific progress. The “muzzling”, while clearly regretful and unnecessary, was strictly in dealing with media, and was entirely consistent with other federal departments.

4. The Harper government places too much emphasis on applied/commercial science. This may be true, and as I’ve pointed out here on numerous occasions, it is troubling. But this is a long-standing debate/discussion without clear answers: what is the right balance between basic and applied science funding? If basic research is fundamental to the creation of social and commercial innovation – which researchers have long argued – then what’s the answer when this innovation is found lacking? This tension will continue, whether under a Conservative, NDP, or (ahem) Liberal government. And there is no doubt that researchers will have very different ideas than business leaders or most politicians about where the right balance lies.

So do I think everything is just great? Am I celebrating the Conservative majority as a glorious victory for science? No, of course not. But I don’t think it makes any sense to create unnecessary and artifical ideological and political tension between researchers and the Conservatives. Or to assume that general government behaviour is indicative of particular attitudes towards science and research. In fact,  I think the main criticisms of the Harper government on science policy could just as easily be leveled at the other parties.

(as an aside, here’s my main criticism of the Harper governments’ disrespect for science, which I’ve made before: they have too often demonstrated a disregard for evidence in shaping policy in favour of epistemological populism – the stuff everyone just knows to be true. Furthermore, they’ve undermined the mechanisms to provide evidence, for instance through the elimination of the long-form census and the subsequent misrepresentation of Statistics Canada. This should be of much greater concern than some funding cuts here or there that are easy enough to restore. By eliminating the role of evidence in shaping policy, we do science a greater disservice. In my more optimistic moments, I hope this was due to the hyperpartisanship of minority governments, but we’ll see.)

In fact, I think there is every reason to be optimistic about research policy under a Conservative majority. But it will be up to scientists to make the case. Not to sit back and criticize every decision or tut-tut at this and that statement. But to engage with the government and provide it with the information to make good, informed decisions. Instead of complaining about how the government won’t come and talk to us in our language and engage us on our turf, maybe we should be more proactive. We need to engage government MPs and cabinet ministers, we need to be able and willing to discuss things like Returns on Investment (ROI) and political benefits. We need to move beyond “give us the money” to find win-win situations where everyone can benefit. And we certainly need to move beyond the old caricatures of ignorant, creationist Reform party MPs trying to set back the clock – not only are these caricatures inaccurate, they’re counterproductive.

Odds and sods

April 14, 2011

A few things floating around my election-addled brain:

  • Great work by my Québec counterparts from Agence Science-Presse and their colleagues on their effort Je Vote Pour la Science (JVPLS) on web,  print and radio. They’ve compiled a list of nine questions from readers/listeners dealing with three main areas of science: Energy and Environment, Consumer Safety/Health, and the Forest Sector. I look forward to responses from the parties.
  • Also seeking answers on science policy is a group of intrepid radio hosts at University of Ottawa’s CHUO 89.1 program Peer Review Radio. UofO graduate students and masters of understatement (their website declares: “science funding is a topic that often slides past the public interest”), they asked local candidates to answer questions from scientists. Here’s hoping they get some traction. You can follow their efforts on twitter with #scilxn41. Side note: the station and the candidates are in my riding – perhaps the highest concentration of science policy media coverage in any riding in the country…
  • if you want to hear a discussion of science policy and the now-defeated Conservative budget, or you just want to hear some very bad French, you can listen to me being interviewed by Je Vote Pour La Science on Montreal’s Radio Centre-Ville 102.3, taped just before the writs dropped. The audio is here, and I come on at the five minute mark. My first media experience and it’s in my rarely-used second language – believe me, I have a new appreciation for the leaders debating in their second languages the last two nights…
  • Speaking of which – nothing about research in the debates. Nada. But there were some really nice sets.
  • Finally, I’d encourage you to read blog posts by @NGhoussoub outlining the gong show that is the NSERC binning process for deciding Discovery Grants. For those who aren’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of how grant funds are allocated, they’re a bit of an eye-opener. And for those who are, it’s stunning what a gong show the bureaucratization of the process has become.

Research policy in party election platforms

April 11, 2011

A summary of research policy highlights from the party platforms, along with a few editorial comments:

Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservative plan (pdf here) is slightly more detailed than the others, as they’ve rolled their recently tabled budget into their platform. The platform document includes a subsection devoted to R&D, in which they trumpet their track record (e.g. “made substantial new investments in R&D through Canada’s granting councils”, which I guess is technically true if you ignore the funding cuts that preceded – and exceeded – said “investments”).

Promised initiatives include:

  • establish 30 Industrial Research Chairs at colleges and polytechnics.
  • establish 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs
  • “support research partnerships between college and university researchers and students, through Canada’s research granting  councils.” No details.
  • Support the “outstanding work” of the Institut National d’Optique and the “world-leading” Perimeter Institute. Presumably, other research centres are not world-leading or producing enough outstanding work to qualify for support. (I don’t mean to demean the work at these institutes, but it REALLY irks me when the government hand-selects recipients like this; it politicizes the research funding process and takes responsibility for research out of the hands of peer-review experts and gives it to politicians, for whom research excellence is presumably a secondary concern [/rant])
  • “leverage funding” for the Brain Canada initiative ($100-million from budget)
  • take action on recommendations of R&D review panel

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberals (pdf here) are pretty ambiguous about research policy,  though they do have one idea that may be innovative (though probably isn’t). Platform highlights include:

  • focus on three “champion sectors“: Clean resources, health and biosciences, and digital technologies. These sectors will be the focus across all areas of government, presumably including research funding and innovation programs. I’m a little ambivalent on this idea. On the one hand, I think it’s important to have some focus for allocating finite resources, but I fear this approach runs the same problem as the “picking winners” strategy I criticized the Conservatives for, above.
  • establish an “Innovation Gateway“, which would bring the panoply of boutique innovation programs under a single umbrella. While it seems a little premature (and presumptuous) to make this recommendation while the R&D Review Panel has yet to report, it’s an interesting (possibly innovative) suggestion. There are few details, but there’s potential in the creation of an arm’s-length agency to administer innovation programs. It would take the money away from uncoordinated pork-barreling by regional development agencies and place it in the hands of an evidence-based agency built on the CFI or Genome Canada model. Of course, it might also change nothing and simply layer on extra bureaucracy.
  • Like the Conservative platform, there is also a section specifically dedicated to R&D, with a laughably ambiguous promise to “increase investments” in research “as the country’s financial situation improves“.
  • A specific promise to invest $100-million over two years in a Canadian Brain Health Strategy, with research money flowing through “leading national research bodies”. This announcement mirrors the $100-million for brain research announced in the recent Conservative budget. (note: the budget tables in the Appendix show only $80-million for brain health – unsure about the discrepancy)
  • A promise to restore the long-form census. Clearly a political move, will be interesting to see if it comes up in the debates this week.

New Democratic Party

The NDP (platform pdf here) doesn’t seem to have much of a plan for research, with nary a mention in the platform. Weird. Here’s what’s there:

  • a promise to support research, development and commercialization of green technologies through incentives and the sale of “green bonds
  • restoration of the long-form census
  • That’s all…

Green Party

The Greens’ platform (pdf here) is described in detail in their Vision Green document, which includes their goals up to 2020. Of all platforms, it contains the most research-related content, and it is the most descriptive. Unlike the others, it also describes something akin to a “vision” for research in this country, which is predictably aligned with environmental and social justice politics. Oddly, this means that health research, a multi-billion dollar undertaking in this country and our largest research sector, is barely mentioned. Among their policy goals:

  • cut all funding to research with GMOs ($300-million over three years), institute a ban on any further research on genetic engineering and increase funding into organic food production
  • cut all funding for research at AECL ($450-million over three years)
  • link research spending in the natural and social sciences to water policy goals
  • support research into “possible harmful effects” of nanomaterials (umm, risk of confirmation bias?)
  • lots of animal rights promotion, including: ban experimental use of animals for cosmetics and military research, “strive for… ultimate replacement of animal use for all research, testing and educational purposes”, ban use of vertebrates for lethal dose toxicity studies
  • increase funding to tricouncil by 15% annually for four years, “emphasize” funding for environmental innovation, and invest in “undergraduate research fellowships” through the tricouncil
  • support CANARIE (no details)

Bloc Québecois

edit: an earlier edition based the Bloc positions on an executive summary of their platform. Here’s a more detailed look at what the Bloc offers (demands?):

  • extensive support for industrial R&D through investments and tax credits, including for research on electric cars, biofuel, aerospace, biopharma, forestry, agriculture
  • the support is stated, but not costed or described in detail
  • the Bloc maintains that Canada’s poor record on R&D investment is because Canada’s research and high tech firms are concentrated in Quebec. The rest of Canada has no interest in investing in R&D because it’s irrelevant to its economic base.

Fairy Dust Funding and the Election

March 25, 2011

Here we go again.

All signs point to the House of Commons finding the government in contempt of Parliament today, with a non-confidence vote launching a spring election.

So what can we expect?

Widespread pandering for votes, especially among seniors and ethnic communities, is already happening and is likely to intensify. Other, more segmented groups will also likely be targets of special attention, if the government’s budget is any indication. Tax breaks for piano lessons and volunteer firefighting, subsidies for home renovations. This is how political parties make friends and influence people in our age.

Unfortunately, research funding is increasingly subject to the same process: announcements of boutique programs to maximize political benefit. While the government has made significant investments in numerous research initiatives during its tenure, basic tricouncil funding has remained essentially flat. Even though the tricouncil is the primary mechanism by which research is funded in this country.

The fact is: tricouncil funding is unsexy. Despite their best (and often woefully misplaced) efforts, CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC suffer from the impression that they are impersonal bodies that base funding decisions on the opinions of faceless research peers.

This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, it is far more sexy for the Junior Minister of Science and Associated Things to stand up in the foyer of the Perimeter Institute and promise money to the part-time home of Stephen Hawking. It is way cooler to give money to Rick Hansen and his Foundation for Spinal Cord Research than to give it to CIHR which may – or may not! – allocate the funds in the same way. And whereas funding a new hockey rink in Quebec City is shameless vote-begging, promising $45-million to the Institut National d’Optique in the same region is simply supporting good science.

This is unfortunate because the tricouncil agencies, wayward as they can be, have an integrated and balanced approach to funding research. They take the long view and have built relationships (however rocky) with researchers. One-off announcements of major funding for specific research projects may be splashy, but they’re short-sighted. At best, we end up with a disjointed approach to research, with none of the “synergies” and “network effects” the government so desires, without the balanced approach that an effective research tradition requires. At worst, we end up with an increasing number of white elephants competing for a stagnant pool of ongoing research support. Researchers should demand a more coordinated vision for research support in this country, one based on long-established and essential practice of peer review.

Alas, this pick-and-choose approach to research funding is likely to worsen rather than improve during a campaign, where every utterance is squeezed for maximum political benefit. We will need to look past the millions of dollars sprinkled like fairy dust across the research spectrum and determine whether any of the parties offer anything like an integrated vision for research. Whether any of them demonstrate the respect for peer-review essential to a strong research tradition. And to determine whether any of them will listen to the community of researchers and invite them to participate in setting our country’s research agenda.

And it will be up to researchers to reach out to them. To tell them what’s important. To move beyond cries of “more, more!” and contribute meaningfully to a debate on issues that are central to Canadian research. To put our ideas in front of the political parties and find out where they stand.


Post-budget analysis

March 23, 2011

So, the 2011 federal budget was released yesterday.

And how did research fare?

Well, like so many other sectors it was sort of “more of the same”. Nothing to send one to the heavens or the barricades.

Just sort of… meh.

So, what was there? Well, there was an annual increase in tricouncil funding, though still not enough to offset this year’s scheduled cuts from the 2009 budget (combined with last year’s increase of $32M for this year, that’s a total of $69M back from the $87.2M scheduled to be cut). There’s also a small increase in funding for associated indirect costs. This is something researchers have been asking for, which suggests the government has been listening to concerns.

Genome Canada wasn’t forgotten this time, but CFI was (to be fair, CFI is still slated to receive $75M this year from Budget 2009).

There’s more money for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which I suspect will be more carefully gender balanced this time.

There’s the ambiguous promise of deficit reduction through ambiguous “spending reviews” which could easily cut millions from research, but there are no details provided.

There’s also money for colleges, money for collaborative research projects, clean technology, etc etc etc.

Like the rest of the budget, it’s a laundry list of unrelated, unimaginative, and uninspiring spending measures. Nothing to decry, really, but nothing approaching a vision for the future of research in Canada.

Of course, it doesn’t matter does it? The NDP has joined the Liberals and BQ by stating they won’t support the budget, and so the government will fall and we’re heading to an election.

So this should really be seen as the Conservative Party financial election platform. What does it say?

Well, I think it demonstrates that the Conservatives AREN’T enemies of research. Sure, they may lack vision and leadership, and they certainly place politics well ahead of evidence-based policy, but they haven’t slashed funding the way we’ve seen in other countries (like the UK), and signs are that they don’t mean to.

That isn’t to say there aren’t concerns, though. As Jim pointed out in response to yesterday’s post, one major concern of this government has been its tendency to cut out the middle man (ie tricouncils) and make direct funding decisions. We see this in this year’s announcements of funding for the Perimeter Institute and the Institut National d’Optique – both great institutes, without a doubt – and $100-million to a Canadian Brain Research Fund. Nearly $200-million dedicated to research, but without peer review or accountability built in. We saw this last year in funding for TRIUMF and the Rick Hansen Foundation for spinal cord research.

This kind of direct funding means decisions about research funding are no longer in the hands of experts who review and evaluate the science, but are rather in the hands of bureaucrats with little experience in research but lots of experience in maximizing political returns. This is entirely consistent with two urges in this government: the mistrust of experts and the need to centralize decision-making.

While the government has kept the dollars flowing towards research, they’ve been increasing their control over where it goes, which is a more pernicious trend.

Thankfully, we’ll soon have a chance to determine whether the other parties would approach research funding any differently. Indeed, we may even be able to convince them to do so.


2011 Federal Budget Highlights for Research Funding

March 22, 2011

Here are the relevant research bits from today’s budget. Analysis to follow.

  • $80M over three years for IRAP
  • $60M over three years to promote more students in digital economy disciplines
  • $37M/y for three federal research granting councils ($15M CIHR, $15M NSERC, $7M SSHRC)
  • $10M/y for Indirect Costs Program
  • $53.5M over five years for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs
  • $100M for a Canada Brain Research Fund
  • $65M for Genome Canada for a new human health research competition
  • $4M for a cyclotron at Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute to make medical isotopes
  • $35M over five years to NSERC to support excellence in climate and atmospheric research “at Canadian post-secondary institutions” (so nothing for CFCAS and PEARL?)
  • $50M over five years for Perimeter Institute
  • $5M/y for 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at colleges
  • $12M over five years through Idea to Innovation program
  • $40M over two years to Sustainable Development Technology Canada for clean tech projects
  • $45M over five years for operations of National Optics Institute
  • $12M over five years for creation of a Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence

$50-Million for Perimeter in Tuesday’s Budget

March 21, 2011

Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science-and-so-on, announced yesterday that Tuesday’s federal budget will include $50-million in new funding for Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. While details are scarce, it is assumed this will extend the $50-million in funding Perimeter received in the 2007 budget, which is set to expire next year.

While this is certainly great news for Perimeter and the quantum physics research community, it may be more significant for what the announcement doesn’t say. Traditionally, governments attempt to get the most political mileage out of their budgets by announcing spending measures one-at-a-time in the weeks leading up to the budget’s release. Already, political watchers have speculated that the dearth of spending announcements in recent weeks (apart from a seeming limitless supply of funds for Quebec snowmobile clubs) is signaling a budget that will be thin on spending announcements. Yesterday’s announcement may therefore signal that the Perimeter funding is the one (and only) politically significant R&D spending announcement in the budget.

Of course, there’s a glass-half-full interpretation as well. The Harper Government™ is nothing if not politically hyper-aware. If major cuts were coming to the R&D funding landscape, the Harper Government™ would have been laying the ground for weeks, perhaps by undermining the agencies or highlighting their inefficiencies. This would have been especially necessary given that they’ve stated repeatedly that they’re committed to an innovation society. It’s been absolutely quiet on that front, so maybe no news is good news.

There’s another, more nakedly political (and therefore more likely) interpretation. Given that there is widespread speculation that an election may be called as soon as Wednesday, the government is using any opportunity to spread the pork around ridings considered key battlegrounds. And it doesn’t get more key than Waterloo, the closest race in the country in the last election, won by the Conservatives by only 17 votes. Announcing $50-million for the riding can’t hurt if the writ drops later this week.

Anyway – this will certainly be an exciting week for Canadian science. The budget will be released tomorrow and I’ll be sure to summarize what it means for Canadian researchers. Later in the week, the government may fall, followed by an election call – in which case researchers will have to make sure R&D funding policy receives the attention it deserves.

Interesting times.