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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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2011 11:46

    Well said. I agree that the problem is more about their active de-linking of evidence from policy. And I think the climate change case is probably part of that. It’s not that they don’t believe the science. It’s that they don’t believe it is the role of government to do anything about it, especially if that means a major shift in the economic foundation of the country. Like it or not, resource industries including the oil and gas industry are a major contributor to the current strength of the Canadian economy. Is that sustainable? No. But changing to a more sustainable basis is a pretty risky business.

  2. Asshat permalink
    May 4, 2011 14:25

    And what if the creationist Reform party MPs do set back the clock?

    Will take my newly minted unregistered long gun to the face?

  3. May 4, 2011 19:01

    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.

    Yeah, but isn’t the problem that there IS NOT a policy? An absence which, in retrospect, could be partially explained by his personal beliefs, religious or not.

    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.

    You’re perfectly right that no parties has done this a priority issue. But are the conservatives really endorsing the basic tenets of climate change? I don’t remember this point being that clear. Did I miss something?

  4. Jim permalink
    May 5, 2011 07:11

    There are certainly some troubling signs. The economy is still very fragile and Harper is looking for $14 billion in government program cuts. That is going to affect every aspect of government (except prison building and plans for the F45). A lot of people are still smarting and are under-employed. They are demanding lower taxes and these can only be accommodated by reducing government. Harper has committed to a 6% increase in health transfers for another two years beyond the expiry of the Martin accord in 2013/14 and so his hands are tied. Government coffers are going to be reduced in the short term and even if reductions in corporate taxes do result in more jobs (and hence higher income tax revenues), that will take years. So, brace yourselves… There is no indication the other parties would not have done similar, but I think this government is more ideologically driven and, to some degree, is anti-intellectual (for better or worse, that was their thrust against Ignatieff and it has rubbed off on other elements of their campaign). The other major factor is that there are no end of year surpluses. Hence, appropriations to existing programs that were funded by this mechanism (Paul Martin’s legacy) such as Genome Canada, will remain at the whim of the PMO. Lastly, while there is certainly a tendency towards flagship programs (CERCs), there is a more disconcerting trend towards non-competitive funding allocations. This weakens the tricouncils at a time when they are increasingly shouldering the burden of reduced research funding by NGOs. These councils represent the meat of Canadian research but are not judged favourable by government. The core issue though, is that science is not on anyones agenda. It certainly was not an election issue and none of the parties had a clear vision based on scientific progress and enquiry.

    BTW, while things are not particularly rosy here, proposed cuts in Australia would have made us look like fat cats. The resulting uproar has likely put Australian science on stronger footing – by rallying support from the population. We might learn a lesson or two from our antipodean associates.

  5. Jim permalink
    May 5, 2011 08:40

    Talking of the Aussies, the new Australian chief scientist sounds like he was separated at birth from Stephen Harper!

  6. May 5, 2011 09:22

    There is no indication the other parties would not have done similar, but I think this government is more ideologically driven and, to some degree, is anti-intellectual (for better or worse, that was their thrust against Ignatieff and it has rubbed off on other elements of their campaign).

    Anti-intellectual is indeed an important factor that we must not under-estimate. If it was only tactical thing for electoral campaigns, that would be reassuring. But there is something deep here, a dangerous perception —maybe part of the old rural vs urban polarity that many politics are using— and this has inevitably an impact on future policies. Unless some very bright people are able to build bridges, to show them that the “intellectual” is not the enemy.

  7. Sponge Bob permalink
    May 5, 2011 20:49

    First let’s separate science from technology:

    Science is an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world. Technology is the creation, usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization as means in order to solve a problem or serve some purpose or end. (Thanks Wikipedia 😉 )
    They often go together, but can exist alone. Metallurgy existed long before we knew anything about metals and their oxidation states, and some areas of mathematics have no applications per se.

    Do the conservatives like technology? Of course, it leads to products and services that can be sold and contribute to the economy.

    Do they like science? Not sure. They do not need explanations about the world in many areas. They have their beliefs.

    They do not want to know why the climate is changing. It is changing, that’s all, and we have to live with it.

    They do not think ecology and sustainable development are important, it goes against their simplistic view of the world as a big market.

    They do not want to know who is poor, why, and the social consequences. Poor people just have to want and fight hard enough to get out of their condition. No need for a long form census; survival of the fittest, social Darwinism from those who barely believe in the Theory of Evolution.
    This could also be an explanation for the very strong bias in the funding of University research for « stars » and super-performers. This will lead the others to do everything they can to perform better, if they have any value. Science needs stability and continuity, but they would not know, because of their lack of scientific literacy. Please don’t be so naive to think that CIHR and NSERC are not on leash

    They do not want to know about studies showing that the crime rate is not increasing in Canada, and that a strong repressive system does not correlate with decrease in crime. « Everybody knows insecurity is rising, and we should take action ».

    And the list could go on and on.

    Why is that so?
    Epistemological populism? Maybe, but what if it is just a tool they use to convince people?
    Harper has the economic agenda and the political wit of Margaret Thatcher, coupled with the religious blinders of G.W. Bush. The long and documented demonstration of Marci McDonald in « The Armageddon Factor » is quite convincing about that.

    In conclusion, they probably like science, as long as it does not contradict their vision of the world.

  8. May 13, 2011 11:16

    I agree with some of your points, especially your point about the Conservatives privileging ideology over evidence. This latter point is in fact a major concern to me because I think that the default belief about science in the party is that its worth is entirely linked to the economic benefits it can generate OR the credibility it will lend to Conservative policy (or in the case of funding for the Perimeter Inst., the favours they can do for a super-rich ‘friend’ of Conservatives).

    You say that Conservatives have officially accepted the central tenets of climate change science. Perhaps that is their current ‘official’ position, but Harper himself and many of his previous advisors and close allies have, in the past, publicly denied the ‘reality’ of evidence for climate change. Harper knews that he couldn’t win over centrist voters by exposing their oil-sands friendly underbelly in the last few years. But I think it is pretty clear that the Harper government (and Canada) has become world-known now for being climate-change policy heel-draggers. The reasons are twofold: (i) a large fraction of the party faithful DO NOT believe climate change science (because they don’t actually understand or are generally swayed by evidence) and (ii) they are strongly supported by the ‘pro-oil sands’ lobby. Climate change policy means penalizing the latter and compromising the support from this base.

    As for the issue of Kenney and creationism, I think it IS a big issue because it is not JUST one MP. Stockwell Day is a card-carrying young Earth creationist who was against the public schooling of children because it didn’t instill Christian values. Quite a few of the powerful Conservatives belong to the same churches (Christian and Missionary Alliance or Pentecostal) and…although they won’t say anything publicly because of the Harper message control….are also likely to have completely irrational beliefs about evolution (not to mention other scientific issues). That a large number of powerful people in the Conservative government believe in the something scientifically equivalent to phlogiston or faeries in their gardens suggests to me that they are not just scientifically ‘non-literate’ — they actually have no capability for rational reasoning in the modern world. How can we sincerely try to explain the value of science to such people, especially when science (e.g. climate change or environmental research) often puts up pesky barriers to their political agenda?

    Finally, as a comment on whether or not the stifling of departments under the Conservative government is an artefact of a hyper-partisan policital environment during a minority government. This is a frankly lame argument that Andrew Coyne in MacCleans advanced. The Conservatives were held in contempt of Parliament for deliberately not providing information to parliament — no other government has been there before. The other parties have vociferously complained about how the Conservatives won’t discuss things and won’t compromise. This is all part of the same pattern of message and information control that is a CORE value of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The reason they don’t like Stats Canada is because they provide INFORMATION that doesn’t necessarily agree with Con ideology. The reason they stifled Environment Canada is the same reason that Bush did similar things in the US….They don’t want FACTS to get in the way of implementing an ideologically driven agenda. It has NOTHING to do with the minority government.

    Or so I claim….

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