Commentary strives to politicize science funding debate
Ironically, just as Principal Heather Monroe-Blum asks all interested parties to depoliticize the debate about research funding, a commentary by Michael Bliss in the National Post whips up the political rhetoric. The article wields the sharpened tools of political battle to discredit researchers and dismiss their concerns, and serves as a reminder to the research community that wading into the political debate is not for the faint of heart.
Bliss never engages with the issues raised by concerned researchers. Instead, he’s eager to engage in political mudslinging, attempting to sway minds with unsophisticated rhetorical tools. In a transparently ad hominem criticism, Bliss dismisses scientists who have engaged in the discussion about the role of science funding as “a fairly powerful coalition of pure scientists — who resist any attempt to steer the direction of research”. But it’s not just this coalition; it’s also “disappointed grant applicants”. Then of course, there are the amoral scientific mercenaries: the “handful of scientific superstars willing to auction themselves to the highest bidding government”. Never mind that the signatories to the open letter are distinguished researchers from across disciplines, many of whom are not concerned about their personal funding. Demeaning and discrediting your opponents is easier than addressing their opinions, and represents one of the simplest and most distasteful tools of politics.
Another base political tool is mischaracterizing your opponent’s opinions to suit your position. What does Bliss say Canadian scientists want? “To [declare] war on a government because some of its policies are temporarily inconvenient and vexatious” and “[To] bring pressure on Ottawa to abandon its priorities and just spend more and more.” That’s good newspaper copy, but it’s hogwash. No one in the research community wants to go to war with the government, and it certainly isn’t because a few of its policies are irksome. Researchers are legitimately concerned by how research policy has been trending during the tenure of this government – the science and technology policy paper of 1997 which emphasized applied research at the expense of basic research, the elimination of the office of science advisor, the cuts to the research funding councils, $5.1-billion in infrastructure spending characterized as “support for research and science”. This isn’t about spending “more and more”. This is about science policy gone adrift. Yes, it is made all the more alarming given the strong voice of support by the new administration in the US. But no, this isn’t just about researchers whining about more money.
Canadian researchers are specifically concerned about what the recent budget says about government research priorities. While the government trumpeted the spending in this budget – this “stimulus budget” – funding for the three federal granting councils was reduced. If the government is cutting funding in a budget filled with massive spending, what will happen when budgets need to be tightened again? How will Canada be able to compete and cooperate internationally if we can’t be counted on to do our share – by participating in the Stem Cell Genome Project, for instance? Canada has been able to build momentum and success in science and research since the research funding cuts of the 1990s, as Bliss himself admits – why should we cede that now? Why are we not striving to build on the successes we’ve achieved, as noted in the recent STIC report?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and that’s why I’m engaging in the discussion.
Articles like the one in the National Post threaten to derail what should be an opportunity for a very positive engagement between all the stakeholders in science policy. Yes, things may get heated when we hold different opinions on where funding should go and how our science policy should be built. Scientists are used to this sort of animated disagreement. The bare knuckles of political battle, however – where winning is more important than getting it right – will do nothing but distract and detract from the process. A good strong science policy is too important to Canada’s future to allow it to be turned into another cheap political battle.