Are the conservatives really so bad for science?
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.