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Is Canadian science back?

Many will be watching as the new federal government attempts to change the political climate surrounding research in Canada. Benjamin Lappalainen/The Varsity

Is Canadian science back?

The federal government has promised to improve transparency and funding of Canadian research; if done right, it could be a pivotal moment for scientists

In late 2015, Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding of Etobicoke North, was appointed Minister of Science in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Duncan has no direct predecessor to emulate. The position was introduced by Brian Mulroney in 1990 and existed until 1995, when Jean Chrétien nixed it and added the new title of Minister of Industry to his cabinet. Stephen Harper reintroduced a Science and Technology portfolio to his cabinet, but demoted the person in this position to Minister of State, which is a lower cabinet rank. It was therefore a significant change when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Duncan with a full mandate. The move seemed to reflect the Liberal Part of Canada’s campaign promise to restore the voice and funding given to Canadian researchers and scientists.

With $1.1 billion in research funding granted at U of T in 2013–2014 — 31 per cent of which came from federal agencies — there is no doubt that the university is a major player in Canadian research. It educates thousands of students hoping to participate in research each year. Many from the U of T community will be watching as the new federal government attempts to change the political climate surrounding research in Canada.

Money and ‘muzzling’

Under Stephen Harper’s government, scientists across Canada reported a variety of challenges related to the government and their work. A common grievance was the reduction in federal research funding to various  programs and facilities. In January 2014, CBC News reported that 2000 government scientists had been laid off within five years, and that research in climate change, water quality, and other areas had seen dramatic financial cutbacks. 

In recent years, Canadian researchers have also expressed concerns over political censorship in the publication of data. The Harper government was accused of preventing scientists employed by the federal government from sharing information that did not align with the goals of the administration. Public scientists’ interactions with the media were carefully controlled by government media managers.

In particular, climate change research conducted by government scientists allegedly did not reach the general public. Some groups, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called these practices ‘scientific muzzling.’

The new government seems eager to distance itself from these criticisms and to prioritize transparent scientific research. When asked about the goals of the new Ministry of Science, Duncan said, “The goal is to return science to its rightful place and to return science to its rightful place in government. We have two ministers with science in the title, and it I think it shows the importance this government places on science.”

Duncan is a scientist first and isn’t afraid to admit that. She is a U of T geography and anthropology alumnus, holds a PhD in geography, and is known within the community for her research on historical epidemics. Her work focused on understanding the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as the world worried about an outbreak of another global flu in the late 1990s. 

Duncan taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor from 1993 to 2000. Her research led to the publication of a book called Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus in 2003. She entered politics in 2008 and won her riding, even as the federal Liberal Party failed to win nationally.   

It is Duncan’s opinion that the government should not influence scientists’ communications with the public. “Scientists should be able to speak freely in an official capacity where they have direct responsibility or expertise, or scientific and technical matters related to their work. That’s what science is about. Scientists share their work; they have to be able to do that. Part of my mandate is to ensure that government scientists can talk freely about their work, that government science is made available to Canadians and that we have this evidence base to inform decision making,” she said. 

The Conservative Party of Canada maintains that its stance on science has been fair. Marilyn Gladu, MP for the riding of Sarnia-Lambton and Conservative Party of Canada science critic, said, “My view is that scientists are free to speak about their work, but they do not speak for the government on issues of science policy.”

Gladu also defended the Conservatives’ record on science. “Canadian Science never left the main stage while the Conservatives were in power. A lot of very positive things happened, in fact, like a Canadian research team finding a cure for Ebola, that just simply never got a lot of media attention,”she said.

The tension between government regulation and scientific expression was enough to prompt students to speak out about the right to free expression of scientific findings. At U of T, a group known as Students for the Right to Know was started in response to the alleged muzzling of scientists by the Harper government. The group, led by Emma Pask, continues to advocate for the freedom to disseminate scientific findings. 

Pask felt that awareness of the importance of transparency in research has increased. “More professors are presenting their work through alternative avenues, instead of having it written up by public relations representatives or journalists, as dictated by the mandates for government funded research [under Stephen Harper].” To ensure the free expression of their work, Pask said, “Academics are creating more direct ways of sharing their work by starting blogs and appearing on shows, such as TED Talks, to ensure the transparency that their work requires and to secure the proper communication of the scope of their research.”

These measures may no longer be necessary if the new government begins to dismantle the policies put in place by the Harper government, but the lengths researchers go to secure free expression of their findings is representative of how important transparency is to Canadian researchers. 

The ‘Gross Research Product’

The budget allocates an additional $30 million for NSERC and CIHR, and an additional $16 million for SSHRC. As well, an additional $19 million has been granted to the Research Support Fund, a fund “to support the indirect costs borne by post-secondary institutions in undertaking federally sponsored research.” The total increase in funding for research is $141 million in 2016-2017. In total, the final budgets will rise to $1.12 billion for NSERC, $1.03 billion for the CIHR, and $720 million for the SSHRC. Smaller increases were provided to other institutions, like Genome Canada and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

While more generous than previous budgets, an increase of $141 million dollars does not spread well over an entire country and is not likely to significantly improve the ability of researchers to obtain grants for their work

Canada’s research and development expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) remains significantly lower than those of many other top research countries. In 2013, Canada’s per capita GDP spent on research was 1.62 per cent; Israel’s was 4.21 per cent. France’s expenditure on research was 2.23 per cent of GDP in 2013. 

Kennedy Stewart, MP for the riding of Burnaby South and New Democratic Party science critic, thought more should be done to improve research in Canada. “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives undermined scientific research in Canada by reducing funding, firing and muzzling government scientists, and eliminating key tools such as the long form census. As a result, our global reputation took a severe hit and we dropped on most key comparative tables concerning scientific output and innovation,” he said. 

He added that the increases in research funding under the Liberals failed to meet his ideals: “In a recent letter to the new science minister I asked Dr. Duncan to increase funding to our tri-councils by $1.5 billion over the next four years and to tie these increases to inflation to [guarantee] adequate funding over the long term. While a good start, the recent Liberal budget fell short of these goals.”

While researchers would like greater funding, governments are understandably constrained by their budgets. The scarcity of government funding begs the question: should governments prioritize research that is likely to be economically productive? 

Duncan said that the 2016 budget delivers on a mandate to increase funding for “fundamental” science, rather than just research for commercial gain. “Under the framework of the previous government, [researchers] felt that funds were being tied, that there had to be a commercialization aspect to their research to get funding. The example I’ll give is with SSHRC. Between 2000 and 2006, there was 0% tied funding. In 2006, it was 9%. Today it stands at 37%. We heard repeatedly that [increases in research funding] should be unfettered, and [these increases are] unfettered money,” she explained.

Dr. Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice president of research and innovation, noted that U of T researchers enter into funding agreements that guarantee their ability to publish their results and therefore have not been subject to censorship by the government. He hopes for Duncan and the Liberals to implement improvements to the process of applying for funding, which can sometimes be burdensome. 

“Right now… in order [for researchers] to maintain their research programs, their labs, and their support, their graduate students, post docs and so on have to write multiple applications for the same project to different organizations,” he explained. Goel wants this process to come under the Ministry of Science review that was also announced in the 2016 budget. He also wishes that the government can improve access to funding for new scholars and increase international collaborations.

Dr. Edward Andrew, professor emeritus of the U of T political science department is in favour of research for the sake of research. “My view is that governments should be strong supporters of research, even if it is not economically productive,” he said.

He warned of what can happen if governments fail to support research, regardless of their potential payoff. Andrew predicted, “The alternative to government funding is that all research will be funded and controlled by capitalist corporations. To avoid researchers becoming lackeys of corporations or governments, a multiplicity of patrons or funding agencies is essential.”

Meanwhile, funding agencies have been struggling in recent years. In 2013, both the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy were shut down due to a lack of funding.

While research funding rarely improves the national bottom-line immediately, research should not be undervalued. Rock-solid research is needed to maintain Canada’s position on the global stage. National research and development strengthens our medical care and often leads to new ways to make complicated procedures more effective and cost-efficient.

The National Research Council (NRC) funds a number of medical technologies that improve the way our federally-funded physicians conduct life-saving procedures. Government funding of globally-renowned Canadian health non-profits, like Grand Challenges Canada, also saves thousands of lives abroad. The Defence Research and Development Canada agency conducts important research on how to improve military technology.

While these investments may not pay off immediately, it’s important that a global leader like Canada takes the necessary risk of investing in research, regardless of the outcome.

Goel echoed these sentiments: “Government[s]… can fund fundamental research without having to make the case that it’s going to be economically productive.” Furthermore, he made it clear that governments have a role in funding research for the “social good.”

“[Governments fund] research for which no single entity on its own, particularly a private sector organization, would necessarily invest in because it’s so fundamental [that] it doesn’t lead directly to products and commercialization,” continued Goel. “So, [the] particularly important role for government[s] is to fund the research that nobody else or nowhere else in society would be funded.”

Goel also said that the importance of research in the humanities should not be forgotten or ignored. “I think another part of this [that is] really important for the university is research in humanities and in the social sciences, [which] quite often [are] not directly related to economic activity in the way that people think about it.” noted Goel. In particular, he drew attention to the role the social sciences have in national security. “It is fundamental to our society and understanding social forces within society. Understanding why, for example, people might get radicalized… If we took an economic lens, [that research] might not get funded, [which] can often end up being the most important for us as a society.”

While it is clear that the Liberal government is attempting to improve the Canadian research climate, it remains to be seen whether the measures they have proposed will be enough to realize substantial change. Duncan seems to be hopeful. She concluded, “I just hope that science is back, and that there is respect for science and scientists and the important work they do.”

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the 2016 federal budget allocations for research. The Varsity regrets the errors.

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