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2010 – a rough ride ahead

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, I gave a brief look back at 2009 in science policy. Today, I cast my eye ahead, and point to some broad trends I’ll be watching. Of course, it’s a mug’s game to make predictions, but heck – everyone else is doing it, so why not?

Of course there are easy things to predict – Canadian researchers will continue to produce much world-class research all the while complaining about funding levels and priorities, government will continue making a big show of supporting research (and every other sector) regardless of actual policy decisions, and observers (ahem) will yell from the sidelines  – ever was it thus.

Unfortunately, it is also easy to predict that 2010 is shaping up to be a tough year for Canadian research policy. Despite much to be positive about in 2009 – spending announcements, optimistic conferences, etc. – an unfortunate confluence of politics and economics will put strong research policy on the defensive in 2010.

Science policy, like all government policy, is increasingly under threat of hyper-partisan influence. 2009 ended with the cynical move to prorogue Parliament by the increasingly contemptuous Conservatives. First and foremost, this move is yet another step in politicizing the basic functions of government and reducing the democratic accountability of the governing party. Regardless of the motives, prorogation is an abuse of Parliamentary power designed to reduce democratic input and oversight from elected members from across the country. The Conservatives will keep governing, but with the messy business of democracy on hold, government policy can emanate from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) cleanly and clearly.

If the governing Conservatives can’t be bothered to consult with the democratically elected officials in Parliament, how likely are they to consult with stakeholders when crafting policy?

If all government functions are subject to partisan gamesmanship, then science policy will suffer. Heather Munro-Blum, McGill Principal, voiced the consensus view at the Canadian Science Policy Conference that a depoliticized, stable science policy is essential. Unfortunately, partisan bickering and one-upmanship is on the rise in Ottawa, and will increasingly impact on policy decisions. Furthermore, the centralized decision-making of Stephen Harper’s PMO means that science policy is not likely to be the product of widespread consultation and consensus, but based on decisions made by non-experts – likely for expressly political gain. Research will suffer.

Science policy will also likely be affected by an election in 2010, which most observers see as unavoidable. Despite Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s promise to support whatever budget the Conservatives table this spring, Harper has not abandoned his quest for a Parliamentary majority (in fact, maybe this is his modus operandi – last year he promised to bring down the government at any cost and didn’t – perhaps this year he’s promising to support the government at any cost, but won’t). While a fall election seems most likely, some pundits are suggesting that prorogation was a first step towards a spring election, with the government dropping the writ upon its return. Either way, when the election comes it will behoove scientists and other science policy stakeholders to ensure that science policy makes its way into a debate that will be dominated by economic concerns.

The economy, of course, will be the dominant story for 2010, and the narrative will be tough for research policy. While the recession seems to be easing, the effects are still being felt – especially in R&D where, according to an OECD report, “historical data show that research and development (R&D) and venture capital are among the first expenditures to be cut during recessions in OECD countries”. Many of these cuts, which were observed in 2009, were partly mitigated by massive stimulus spending here and abroad. But this party’s over – the next several years will be dominated by discussion about how to rein in spending and get governments out of deficit.

Because the deficit will be the dominant political issue for the foreseeable future. The Conservatives maintain that they can beat the deficit through growth and attrition, but no one believes them. Deep spending cuts will be needed. Indeed, the Harper conservatives, forced to profligate spending, must be aching to make these cuts. And where do you make the cuts? In areas where you already spend a lot of money, and that aren’t perceived as essential to economic recovery. University-level research fits that bill, which is why its funding was hard-hit during the deficit fights of the early 1990s, and will be again.

Let’s be honest, the last ten years have been pretty good for research spending in Canada. Sure, there have been arguments about where we’re investing the money – mega-projects vs. small labs, science vs. humanities, infrastructure vs. people – but the arguments have been about allocation. There’s been rapid growth in university research spending in Canada for more than ten years, and we are at the top of the OECD in government support for R&D. Previous fights were about who gets the money – the next ones will be about trying to get the money in the first place.

An early shot across the bow was delivered by conservative commentator Gwyn Morgan in the weekend’s Globe and Mail:

As in other countries, Canada’s government spending has turned this time of private sector bust into a public sector boom. Rather than making tough choices and finding ways to be more efficient, universities and other public institutions have followed the well trodden path of campaigning for even more taxpayer money… But the tables must and will turn. Private sector recovery will be long and difficult, but the overall direction will be up. On the other hand, financial reality dictates that public sector expenditures must fall dramatically.

Universities will be hard-pressed to make resonant arguments against deep spending cuts, especially in a climate focused almost exclusively on economic recovery. One approach will be to make the economic argument for universities, to suggest that they are drivers of innovation, that they produce skilled workers, etc. The economic argument is dangerous, though, as summarized by Maclean’s columnist and friend of research Paul Wells (though his argument appears not in Maclean’s but in the Western University alumni magazine):

The problem with that line of argument is that in a really nasty economic environment, governments on a tight budget will take that as a cue to go hunting for anything a university does that doesn’t, demonstrably, simplistically, generate the ideas that drive a new economy. Whatever they find that looks like a ‘frill’ by that definition will be in danger of getting cut. And frankly, most of what goes on at a university is hard to justify as part of a job-creation mill.

Mr. Wells hits the nail on the head: universities will get decimated if they choose to make their defense on economic terms. Instead he suggests pointing out that universities are important because “it’s the place where knowledge and beauty go for shelter when knowledge and beauty are viewed as a bit suspect everywhere else”. He suggests that it’s time for a different tack, that university administrators have spent too long focusing on research and need to defend the intrinsic value of “knowledge, scholarship, beauty, contention, and an environment that urges scholars toward ambition and accomplishment”. Fine words, these, and likely to find a receptive audience in an alumni magazine, but unlikely to carry the day in bare-knuckled budget debates.

Instead, universities are both practical and aspirational; research may yield applications with economic benefit, but it may also simply increase our sense of selves and wonder at the world. Universities are complex institutions that make enormous contributions to their communities – locally, nationally, and internationally – and they deserve our strong and vocal defense. Enunciating precisely why and how they’re important, and ensuring that strong, stable funding for research remains a government priority will be the major challenge for 2010.

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