Could the research community cost Harper a majority government?

Not so far-fetched, when some are arguing that the $50-million announced in the 2011 federal budget for the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute is closely related to the 17 votes differential in that riding during the last election. Better documented is the fact that Stephen Harper lost his chance for a majority government in 2008 once he announced his $45 million cuts from arts programs. Could the government’s research funding policies have an impact on this election?

The date was March 16th, 2009. Harper’s government had just announced billions and billions of dollars of spending in a stimulus budget. Yet, that same budget managed to chop $147.9-million from the three granting agencies that fund research at Canadian universities. Whether intentional or not, the government seemed to be sending a loud and threatening message to Canada’s research community.

The reaction was swift. 2,250 researchers, including some of the country’s most respected scientists, signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling the funding cuts “huge steps backwards for Canadian science.” The opposition parties, as well as the media, made sure the story stayed alive for a couple of weeks. For various vaguely related reasons, the issue stuck.

Assuming that 5 out of 6 Canadians normally shy away from signing open letters even when they support their content, one can arrive to a figure of 15,000 discontented researchers. With an average of 3 voters per household, this government’s decision may have influenced the votes of 45,000 Canadians. Trivial you might say, though not totally irrelevant for close ridings. But this is not the end of the story.

Shortly after that, 2241 graduate students in biological and environmental sciences signed a letter/petition to political leaders protesting the recently announced cut to NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship funding for MSc students. The new PGS program restricts awards at the Master’s level to a single year, starting with the 2009 competition.

At the same time, there was another open letter to parliamentarians urging them to remove the condition that recently announced scholarships for SSHRC be focused on business-related degrees.

Prior to that, 2290 Canadian postdoctoral fellows signed a petition to “maintain the competitiveness of a postdoctoral research career in Canada”. This was in response to Revenue Canada ceasing to recognize their student status, hence causing them a tangible loss of income (~10%) due to taxation.

More recently, 1926 health researchers signed a petition protesting the ridiculously low success rates in the individual CIHR Operating Grants competition, and expressing deep concern about the funding of biomedical research in Canada.

Add this to the perception that it is really government that keeps pressuring the three granting councils to continue moving funds from Discovery to Industry and away from basic research.

Even new funding can raise the ire of the most seasoned voters. The 2008 budget saw the Harper government introducing the Vanier scholarships, a $25-million investment through the Tri-council.  Valued at $50,000 annually for three years, these scholarships are almost two and a half times the value of a regular graduate scholarship, and 10K more than what regular postdoctoral fellows get (even in their 3rd year after a PhD). Do not underestimate the resentment these scholarships are causing. It has been argued that they have created a two-tier system within the graduate student body. Moreover, the “rich” scholarships have also triggered unhelpful comparisons with existing postdoctoral salaries and even with the compensations of some junior assistant professors in certain colleges and universities.

Do not underestimate either the impact of seeing the Harper government trying to buy $190 million worth of excellence by recruiting 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs. Ten more were announced in this year’s budget. Each CERC will receive $10.6-million each year, almost one-third of the new money available to the entire academic research community through the Tri-council. It should be said that not many in Canada’s research community are impressed, particularly in a context where many of Canada’s own equally “excellent” researchers are starving for minimal research funding.

As important as the issues of funding, is the role of a perceived ideological assault on communities’ dreams and aspirations in getting  them mobilized against a certain government. More than the $45 million cuts from arts programs, it was Harper’s swipe at artists as rich elites who are somehow unlike normal Canadians, that mobilized that community against his bid for a majority during the 2008 elections. That prompted a huge public uproar in Quebec, bolstering the Bloc Quebecois campaign and perhaps robbing Harper of a majority.

Likewise, scientific researchers are as passionate about their work as any other intellectual community. Any attack on their professional integrity, their freedom to research and explore, and their capacity to produce, can create a similar collective reaction.  Government attempts at micro-management, at targeting research funding, and at stifling basic research (but at select and hand-picked centres and institutes) could trigger a push-back from an otherwise non-militant community. Another case in point is what has been happening recently at the NRC.

One should also be aware of how 10,000 of Canada’s scientists view and value their NSERC Discovery Grants. More than a mere financial subsidy for their research effort, the DG represents an important, deeply personal reference point for their professional lives, their careers and even their self-esteem. It shouldn’t be the case, but alas it unfortunately is.

The recent changes that NSERC introduced to their evaluation  systems, coupled with their skewed agenda in allocating funds among programs, have brought instability, randomness and accusations of unfairness. They have caused a generalized malaise within Canada’s scientific community. The sitting government might not be the source of all that, but it is likely to be the duck at the receiving end, now that mobs of citizen-scientists have a chance to channel their displeasure. Apres les artistes, les chercheurs?

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Could the research community cost Harper a majority government?

  1. Interesting hypothesis. But in our electoral system, to lose a majority because of scientists would mean that enough scientists are living in ridings where Conservatives were elected the last time, and are at risk of losing this time.

    Or put it an other way: that would imply that thousands of the scientists who signed this petition voted, before that, for conservatives.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      You are correct, and that’s why my title was really a question and not an affirmation. I am aware that the research community doesn’t normally make or break an election, but here we are talking about the possibility that very few seats may give one party a majority or not. Moreover, even if one assumes that most academics are liberals, NDPs, BQ or Greens (which is not necessarily the case nowadays), one cannot ignore the option of strategic voting to enhance the chances of the candidate that has the best chance to defeat the candidate of a sitting government. In any case, the blog post can be seen as an effort “to showcase/play up/inflate” the political power of the research community, so that political parties stop ignoring us.

  2. You are right, of course. That would be really something.

  3. Pingback: A quick reality check on NSERC’s principles at Discovery | Piece of Mind

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