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CAUT head responds to Michael Bliss

May 20, 2009

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), has also responded to Michael Bliss’ research funding commentary that appeared last week in the National Post. Turk provides the usual rebuttals to Bliss’ arguments – that there’s no point funding infrastructure if you don’t fund the scientists who use it, that we shouldn’t be cutting research funding while the US increases it, that basic research needs to be protected from the encroachment of “directed” funding.

While I applaud his effort and contribution, his article gave me pause for thought. First, though he stresses the need to “depoliticize decisions about research“, his article is truly a counterstrike to Bliss’ original political attack. Though he isn’t nearly as ferocious as Bliss, Turk engages in some political gamesmanship, for instance accusing the Harper government of “stacking scientific bodies with corporate executives, federal officials and political friends”.  I worry that turning this into tit-for-tat accusations to score cheap   political points risks diminishing the discussion into simply another subject for partisan bickering. Already, if you look at the online comments posted along relevant Globe and NP articles, you’ll see that the public debate is shaping up this way. Conservative supporters are rallying against the image of trough-feeding ivory tower elites and Conservative critics are rallying against the image of anti-science creationist government Neanderthals. The discussion about researh funding is too important for it to degenerate into simply a new subject for the same old debates.

Second, I think the research community is doing itself a disservice by contrasting things here to the renewed US commitment to science. Not least because we’ve spent the last eight years priding ourselves on our distinct research policies and so it rings a bit hollow to suddenly hold up the US example and cry that we need to do what they do. More important is the fact that the US and Canadian research communities, never mind our respective economies, are completely different in scale and scope, and I think most Canadians sense that. So when Canadian researchers point to a truly astonishing promise (and it is still a promise, mind) to dramatically increase funding, suggesting we need to do the same, it comes off as sounding more jealous than realistic. I think we’re better off pointing out that we lag behind countries like Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Denmark in research spending. These serve as modest and sincere ambitions, and will distinguish our arguments from a generic species of  Obamamania.

Finally, I think it is inaccurate to criticize the Harper government for directing research. Turk points out: “The problem is not just underfunding. The Harper government is also trying to steer research“. The fact is, every government everywhere steers research. Moreover, so long as the public is paying for it, it is the height of arrogance to assume that research spending decisions should be free from the public’s input. Arguing that we don’t want the government messing with our affairs will do nothing but raise the ire of the taxpayers who actually pay for the work and will tempt the caricature of a navel-gazing scientist with a sense of entitlement. Furthermore, suggesting that only researchers themselves – members of our closed and esteemed community – can and should serve on boards or advisory councils, is both patronizing and dangerous. We need to be clear that it is the direction in which the government is steering research that worries the research community, that it represents a poor investment of taxpayers’ money, and that the government is sacrificing strong science policy in favour of ideological pursuits. Asking the government to stop trying to influence what gets funded is both useless and likely to backfire badly. We should welcome government involvement (indeed we do, everytime we fill out a grant application), but should also expect – and should demonstrate to the public why it is important – that government makes science policy decisions based on sound science, and should be prepared to engage fully in helping shape that policy.

Politicization of the debate is a two-way street and leads nowhere productive. Pursuing the high road, taking science policy above the fray, will make those who drag it into ideological purpose seem shallow and small-minded. As Bliss himself pointed out, science is already in a position of relative public esteem. Let’s not sacrifice that.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    May 20, 2009 11:30

    Hear, hear Rob. We need more balance not rhetoric. Our politicians are really good at the latter. Let’s raise the level of the debate.

  2. anon permalink
    May 21, 2009 15:43

    A noble goal to depoliticize but naive. Petitions with large numbers of names, logic, or well-reasoned arguments would have already made a difference if a difference were to be made. While continuing with these efforts is not likely to be harmful, the best realistic hope comes from giving a tax-deductible donation to a science-friendly national political party. Really.

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  1. Comment from James Turk, Exec Dir of CAUT « Researcher Forum

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