And no, I am not sending out a public bouquet to government à la Naylor-Toope. I am talking about a government that is starting to realize that it’s more important to tune into the dreams and aspirations of Canada’s research community than to serenade itself with congratulatory and self-serving press releases of those who can’t do otherwise. There are indeed signs that, at least on the R&D front, the Harper government is listening more and more to Canada’s frontline researchers than to its own bureaucrats, the AUCC, or to university administrators whose job descriptions seem to have written all over them, in bold font: “Keep government happy at all costs by telling them what they want to hear.” Allow me to explain.
March 29th was budget release day in Canada. The AUCC president had hurriedly issued a press release offering praise for “investments (that) will preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding.” Most universities websites followed suit in congratulating the government. The presidents of CIHR and NSERC signed off on essentially identical press releases describing the rosy outcome for research in the 2012 budget. The President of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, wrote a glowing letter that MP James Rajotte read triumphantly during question period at the House of commons: “your outstanding support for advanced research in science, technology, and education and training in Budget 2012 [...] reaffirms the Government of Canada’s commitment to post-secondary education and research while further encouraging innovation in the private sector.” etc, etc…
It didn’t take long before hell broke loose, just as I had anticipated. Indeed, it quickly became clear that the last federal budget was not really a bearer of good news for Canada’s research community. Support for advanced basic research, the cornerstone of universities’ contributions to discovery and innovation, was being shortchanged again. The focus of the budget was on knowledge transfer, commercialization and industry partnerships. Even the support for the last trio was seen as a timid attempt by government to compensate the business community for having implemented certain cuts in the SR&ED program that the Jenkins panel had recommended.
First came the press release of the Canadian Consortium for Research, then an open letter of protest was sent to members of government and of parliament. It was signed by 47 leaders and directors of various research facilities and labs that were targeted for cuts, even elimination, following the cancellation of NSERC’s Major Resources Support (MRS) and the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) programs. Eventually, the media and parliament picked up on the mood of the revolting research community, which eventually culminated in the “Death of Evidence” mock funeral in Ottawa, a protest that reverberated around the globe.
But even then, and in spite of all the turmoil, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, parliamentary secretary to Environment Minister Peter Kent, was still saying that “the government has received lots of positive feedback on the decisions it made in the last budget and that the academic community has been pleased with how much money was invested in research and development.”
And guess what? MP Rempel was telling the truth. The government had indeed received lots of positive feedback on the decisions it made in the last budget. But this begged the question: from whom? Tri-council presidents? University administrators? The AUCC? Or was it from the lucky few special initiatives such as CIAR and Genomics who had managed to secure themselves their own precious line items in the budget?
The problem was that just by consulting with these usual suspects before the budget, then listening to them right afterwards, there was no way for government to get to know what the front-liners in the research community want and what they felt about the new policies. Not until they started going public, that is. Which is the main point of this post.
“If we don’t stand up for science, nobody will,” Katie Gibbs, one of the rally’s organizers, told the crowd. Indeed, people in positions of power need to know the impact of their decision-making, even when negative. They need to want to know about the wishes and priorities of their constituents, and not simply hear the unwarranted cheerleading of those who can’t do otherwise. The message had to cross the cocoon that self-interested cheerleaders normally manufacture around decision makers.
But the message seems to have started reaching its intended destination. One could already sense it through the first reactions of Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, who expressed respect for the role and work of research scientists and was not dismissive of their concerns. He then asserted that some of the cuts were simply “a moratorium for one year as we seek counsel from the scientific community.”
What has happened since? Well, first NSERC is reconsidering its elimination of the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) program, and has started a public consultation about it — though I hear that the RTI will be reinstated with a lower level of funding (around $10-M). I also understand that officials are frantically trying to relocate to the Canadian Foundation for innovation (CFI) those deserving research facilities, which were funded by NSERC’s MRS programme. Last but not least, we heard yesterday the good news that the government is seriously re-thinking the planned closure of the Experimental Lakes Area.
Some say that this is a tribute to “citizen power.” I say that this is also a tribute to a government that is willing to exercise fair-play and good judgment once it gets a chance to hear from its constituents. But there is still lots of work ahead. The kind of work that will require a sustained and concerted effort by all those willing and capable to “speak scientific truth to power.” But we need appropriate mechanisms for consultation and the right channels to do so, not just shallow pre-budget submissions, which hardly reflect the hopes and aspirations of a world class research community.