The Harper Conservatives and the gutting of Canadian sciences

The word science is derived from the Latin word "scientia," meaning knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge is one of the main driving forces of our society. Through basic research or "pure" science, we can acquire the knowledge necessary to understand the fundamental principles that govern our universe. Basic research then forms the foundation of applied research, since understanding the fundamentals accrued by "pure" science are used at the industrial level to generate products. The development of product and sale to the public for consumption, for example The Blackberry, requires a work force. The process where basic research drives job creation is referred to as a knowledge-based economy, which constitutes an important determinant for job creation and the development of a healthy and sustainable economy.

In the 2011 election campaign, the Conservatives built their electoral platform on the concept of job creation and rebuilding a stable economy. That being said, over the past five years it has become abundantly clear that Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives do not appreciate the importance of developing a knowledge-based economy. This is illustrated by five years of massive cuts in research funding, the muzzling of scientists working for the government, and the diversion of critical research funds to support industry (e.g. oil sands). Arguably, this could very well be due to a simple lack of understanding and appreciation for science (which could very well be the case). However, the diversion of research funds towards industry (e.g. oil sands and automotive sector) and the muzzling of government scientists that generate data that clashes with Conservative ideology indicates that the prime minister is more preoccupied with short-term return on investment and not with enacting a concerted effort to ensure the vitality of a knowledge-based economy that is geared toward ensuring a sustainable future.

Since taking office in 2006, Harper has used anti-academic policies to control information and direction of research funding. Between 2006 and 2008, Harper made significant cuts to various academic programs including funding for arts and basic science. During this time, approximately $45 million dollars was removed from the arts and culture. The justification Harper used was that "ordinary people do not care about the arts" (thestar.com, Sept 2008). This shortsighted decision prompted an outcry from the literary community. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, began sending various famous literary works to Harper's home on Sussex Drive to illustrate the rich bounty creative writing has to offer. Margaret Atwood also condemned the decision by writing several articles to various news sources and she continues to speak out about the neglect of the arts by the Conservatives. Now, in 2011, the arts still have not recovered from these massive cuts.

Research scientists in Canadian agencies also felt the sting of going against the Conservative agenda. Following the generation of data that indicated the oil sands are contributing significantly to climate change, the Conservatives decided to muzzle these scientists preventing them from sharing this critical information with the public (Montreal Gazette, March 2010). How is the public going to generate an informed opinion about something as critical as climate change if they are not presented with all the facts by the government they trust?

The announcement of the 2009 budget was marked by the Conservatives boasting $2-billion for fixing the aging buildings of university and college campuses, $87.5 million for new graduate scholarships, and $740 million for the Canada Foundation of Innovation. However, buried deep within the budget was a massive cut in funding to the Research Tri-Council of Canada, amounting to a total of $137 million dollars in cuts. This money was placed conveniently, and not entirely surprisingly, in the hands of the automotive sector, oil sands, and corporations.

What was even more perplexing was that Genome Canada, a major employer of research scientists in Canada and international leader in cutting edge genome research, was left out of the budget completely for the first time in history.

The consequences of these initiatives were catastrophic. Well established academic research laboratories (in the areas of the humanities, and in the natural, social and health sciences) soon became grossly underfunded and unable to make ends meet. Mentors and supervisors became apprehensive since they would not be able to support the salaries of technical staff, graduate students, and in some cases post-doctoral fellows (all three are the life blood of any research laboratory). Massive hiring freezes ensued and various faculties and departments had to cut spending massively. Consequently, this put massive strain on the education programs in universities. A mass exodus of scientists and academics from Canada ensued, with Canada losing a number of high-profile researchers including scientists involved in AIDS research.

Light at the end of the tunnel was apparent with the announcement of the 2010 budget. However, the positive aspects to the budget veiled fiscal decisions that negatively influenced both junior and senior academics. First, despite the introduction of new funding initiatives for postdoctoral fellows (or junior academics; for more information visit the CAPS postdoctoral scholar website), the Harper government announced it would reintroduce the taxation of postdoctoral fellowships (which is similar to a scholarship). Postdoctoral scholars are junior academics who have doctoral degrees and represent future academic professors/scientists. They are paid a low wage during their postdoctoral fellowship ($40,000 per year) and have no benefits or union representation. The taxation of these scholarships, which removes 1/5 of a post doc's annual salary, ultimately pushed these academics to the poverty line. Harper did set up a Banting Postdoctoral Award valued at $70,000 per year. Unfortunately, in 2010, only 20 awards were dolled out leaving a number of post docs, some of whom have families, without a paycheque. Indeed, it is a troubling time to be a junior academic since there are no funds circulating through the Research Tri-Council to provide postdoctoral awards. Why were post docs made to be punished at this magnitude?

At the same time, Harper recruited 19 research scientists from other countries with the Canadian Excellence Research Chair (CERC), a research fund valued at millions of dollars. It is interesting to note that even after the cuts to research funding in 2009, Canadian academics were not privileged enough to be eligible for these funds. In fact, it is disturbing to know that the Federal Conservatives do not care about cultivating the minds and careers of both established and budding academics in Canada. Narrowmindedly, the CERC was only awarded to people working in Natural Sciences with only a handful provided to Health Research. Awards were mostly reserved for engineers and scientists interested in industry and oil sands technology. In fact, one CERC was titled oil sands technology. No CERC awards were provided to women, the humanities, or the arts.

Following the 2010 grant competition, CIHR also recorded an abysmal 17 per cent success rate for operating funds for health research, which was most likely attributed to poor federal support. In addition, post-doctoral and graduate student funding continued to be at an all time low. Indeed, after the cuts in 2009, Harper never replenished the federal research funds, a decision which has now brought the academic system to its knees.

Fast forward to 2011, with a new majority Conservative government forming a new Parliament -- the academic community waited with bated breath for what this government would have in store for science and the arts. With the election behind us, the new budget was announced in early June. As promised by the Conservatives, minor "tweaks" were made here and there to the budget that would have been presented in March (if the Conservative minority government did not fall, because of two counts of contempt of Parliament). The March budget did not offer much for the basic science or arts communities and, in the new budget, nothing has really changed. The Research Tri-Council of Canada will remain in the poor house ($15M CIHR, $15M NSERC, $7M SSHRC per year), post docs will still be taxed heavily with a dearth of funding available, and the arts will remain grossly underfunded. What is really interesting is that post docs, such as myself, are getting taxed heavily and he is using this money to go see the Canucks game in Boston with his "entourage" (Editor's note: According to media reports Harper paid for the hockey tickets, but paid only commercial airline rates to fly himself and his daughter in a Defense Department Challenger jet, which costs approximately $11,000 an hour).

That is an insult! With an already abysmal success rate for research grants, funding for the Tri-Council at an all time low, and postdoctoral positions looking very unattractive, a purging of academics from our country appears inevitable. Harper is able to find sufficient funds to support research and development at the industrial level, but this comes at the cost of deep cuts in basis research and higher education. Basic research is required to enhance our understanding of the principles that govern these R&D innovations. Carnot did not invent the first car engine without understanding the basic principles of combustion, engineering, and physics or, more recently, the trapping of anti-matter by international scientists to aid in understanding the birth of our universe. At a time when emerging economies around the world are increasing their financial support of basic science, Canada is working hard to reduce theirs.

Instead of being a leader in science innovation, Canada is now a laggard (Cell, vol. 144, January 21, 2011). The Conservatives have nonetheless decided to set up 10 new CERCs valued at $54 million, which will continue to restrict the scope of research performed in this country. Why are academics and persons involved in basic science and arts being scorned by Conservatives? If Conservatives are so concerned about the status of the economy and job creation, why are they trying to drive academics, both junior and senior, out of this country? It is very tempting to speculate that their track record of anti-academic policies may be due to a shear lack of understanding of what value basic science truly holds for a sustainable long-term vision of Canada.

Ryan Mailloux is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine.

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