On Monday, September 16, protestors filled the south side of Queen’s Park to petition the Canadian government for evidence-based decision making on scientific research funding. Similar “Stand up For Science” rallies, organized by a group called Evidence for Democracy, took place in 17 cities across Canada this past week.
The rallies aim to bring attention to both the federal government’s policies concerning scientific research funding as well as the alleged censorship of scientists working in areas of research that conflict with the government’s political priorities. Evidence for Democracy argues that the government’s actions are holding Canadian science, and therefore the public, back.
The Stand Up for Science campaign has particular relevance for the University of Toronto, beyond the geographical proximity of the rallies’ Toronto chapter to the St. George campus. U of T is Canada’s largest research university, and receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year in research funding from various levels of government.
U of T is so committed to its reputation for research that some students have argued in recent years that faculty members unduly focus on their own areas of study at the expense of teaching and student interaction. U of T president David Naylor has called for government funding to be tied to the university’s research output instead of its enrolment numbers — a move that would make research key to the university’s financial future and even more central to its purpose.
Evidence for Democracy “advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making” at a time when “governments can be tempted to make decisions based on ideology or political convenience.” Students — and, more generally, the Canadian public — should be concerned that their elected representatives are putting ideological or political concerns before the well-being and prosperity of the people.
The federal government is shifting funding priorities for scientific research away from successful, evidence-based projects that contribute to our health and safety, and diverting that money into industry partnerships. Last year, the government announced its intention to shift from its traditional scientific funding mechanism, the National Research Council, toward a new initiative called the Engage Grants Program. This transition takes grant money that had previously been earmarked for “basic research and discovery science” and allocates it towards research and development projects operating through industry in partnership with the government.
The government has defunded projects like the Experimental Lakes Area in Kenora District, Ontario — which contributes important research to the study of freshwater ecosystems — much to the disappointment of the international scientific community. Other research programs committed to crime prevention, public health, and the environment have also had their funding revoked in favour of more profitable and commercially viable disciplines like petroleum engineering.
Research capitalization — the commercialization of discoveries and technologies for profit — has been an increasing focus of Canadian universities as government funding has been cut, particularly in Ontario. New initiatives from U of T programs like the Institute of Optical Science, the Impact Centre, and TechnoLABS focus on converting ideas into businesses.
While economic successes have often been a side-benefit of outstanding research, focusing every penny of Canada’s research funding on industry partnerships that have clear economic objectives is deeply misguided. First, some research does not and should not serve the immediate interest of industry. Most pertinently, research into the effects of industry on our environment and global climate is vitally important to Canada’s public interest, but would never come from an industry partnership.
Moreover, the premise of industry-driven research is different from the premise of scientific research. Industry invests money in projects that have a perceptible, profitable objective. Scientists, on the other hand, see knowledge as an end in itself, while focusing on investigations that are likely to benefit the public. The wisdom of this approach has been proved time and time again as countless discoveries of great importance have resulted from simply inquiring into the unknown. By choosing to restrict all publicly funded research in this country to projects where an economic goal is in sight, the government has stifled all research that doesn’t serve an economic purpose and given up on real science altogether. This approach is shortsighted, narrow-minded, self-serving, and dangerous.
Industry-focused funding is not, however, the only concerning trend. Evidence for Democracy is also protesting against what they have called “government muzzling” of scientists. They are rightly concerned that the government is enforcing silence on scientists who receive funding for their projects. Researchers whose projects are funded through government grants are restricted from speaking to the press and public regarding the details of their work, and run the risk of losing their funding if they transgress.
By preventing scientists from discussing their research, the Canadian government is shaping science in this country along ideological lines. Ottawa’s recent decision-making reveals a strong preference for economic interests over the public interest. International investment in Canadian science will now be based on our ability to troubleshoot industry rather than on our capacity to solve problems that the whole world is facing, such as climate change.
It is bad enough that Ottawa is shepherding Canadian scientists away from projects whose value is supported by evidence; to also limit the amount of information these researchers can share with the public is censorship, and should not be acceptable in a modern democratic society. A well-educated and well-informed electorate is vital to a healthy democracy. This makes institutions like U of T critically important, but they can only fulfill their roles when researchers can tell the facts as they see them, both in classrooms and in public. The party in power censoring science that does not support its policies should be a nightmare to all Canadians.
U of T’s scientific community has historically been the site of life-saving and world-changing discoveries: Best and Banting were the first to extract insulin, making life with diabetes a possibility for future generations. The world’s first artificial pacemaker was created by scientists at the institute named for Banting. Canada has helped stretch the understanding of our universe by contributing the Canadarm to the International Space Station project. We must not allow this legacy to falter, with our best and brightest forced to serve industrial interests, and to serve in silence. To be of any value, research funding in our university and across the country must come with no strings attached.