Science for profit: Conservatives target the National Research Council

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National Research Council in Ottawa. Photo: dugspr — Home for Good/Flickr

In 2009, the then-minority Harper government smuggled a seemingly innocuous phrase into the federal budget: "Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) will be focused on business-related degrees." Yet this humble sentence garnered a 20,000 signature-strong petition presented to Stephen Harper by MP and future NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton. For graduate students who signed the petition, the one-time funding increase doubled as a barely audible declaration of intent which sought to nudge Canadian arts research towards the interests of capital.

The phrase also represented a jurisdictional gambit. SSHRC is an arms-length funding body, which, like the CBC or Canada Post, traditionally has remained funded by the House of Commons but outside its direct authority. Parliament should allow the council to set its own agenda; not earmark funds for this-or-that preferred project -- and certainly not for an agenda with the scent of conservative ideology.

So when Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear declared in a March 6 speech given to the Economic Club of Canada that the National Research Council (NRC), Canada's arms-length funding agency for pure science research and development, would be "refocused" and transformed into a "concierge" for business solutions, researchers felt a familiar itch. Goodyear fantasized about the day when the NRC "will be hopefully a one-stop, 1-800, 'I have a solution for your business problem.'" It's hard to deny that conservatives have an impressive sense of humour; clearly engineers and scientists aren't the only ones who know how to push buttons and turn screws.

Goodyear reiterated his intent just prior to the Conservative budget. "The whole concept of becoming more innovative in the private sector to improve our economy and prosperity is going to be a big part of the budget," Goodyear said at the end of last month.

"Clearly one of the best opportunities [for reform] is the National Research Council. By taking steps to make the [NRC] more industry-facing than it is ... is exactly what we mean." Considering how devalued and inflated the currency of the word "innovation" has become in neo-liberal discourse over the past decade or so, it's either surprising or cynically fitting that the Harper Government has chosen to straitjacket the only federal funding body whose job description is literally to invent and develop new stuff.

Sure enough, Joe Flaherty's 2012 budget earmarks a one-time fund of $67-million for "business-driven, industry-relevant applied research." Flaherty also doubled the funding to what's called the "Industrial Research Assistance Program," which provides extramural grants to businesses to develop new products, doubled to $220-million per year. The combined increases will hike the NRC's overall budget to $700-million over the next twelve months. Notably, the three federal granting agencies that provide the bulk of university-based research in Canada -- SSHRC, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) -- received no new funding.

"With this budget, the government turns away from the kind of research that leads to new discoveries in favour of a narrow and short-term commercial agenda," wrote James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), in a press release. "By linking research only to business interests, the government will stifle rather than promote growth and scientific advancement ... most fundamental advances in knowledge that lead to innovative applications come from basic research guided by scientists, not political or commercial interests."

It's important to note, however, that the NRC has been vulnerable to manipulation since its inception. It was founded in 1916 not as a beachhead for pure research, but under pressure from the Canadian business lobby to improve industrial development. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the NRC had become the federal government's chief co-ordinator and adviser of national research in support of the war effort and earned its international reputation from the development of radar, explosives, war medicine, rocketry, ballistics, and chemical and biological warfare. The council's budget increased exponentially during the postwar economic boom, but the agency didn't take its modern form as a purely scientific and industrial research agency until 1966.

All this to say that we've seen this before. Science as pure research has always been malleable and vulnerable to the whims of electoral politics. No one knows this better than Goodyear, Flaherty and Harper, who have targeted Canada's premier headspring of pure scientific research not because it can best produce capitalist "innovation," whatever that means; but because controlling what counts as research is the first step in controlling its outcomes.

The implications are massive. If NRC becomes, as James Turk fears, a "convenience store for businesses," what hope do Canadians have in responding to global health epidemics? To soil degradation? To constrained traditional energy supplies? Goodyear hopes to recast Canadian scientists as courtiers for the whims of businesses like RIM and Enbridge. But the problem with only funding science that produces a profit is that such research rarely pays the bills that really matter.

Michael Stewart is a moderator on babble and a doctoral candidate in the department of English at the University of British Columbia.

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