Are blue skies back for Canada’s scientists?

Sunbeam on maple leaf

By Ellie Bothwell, Times Higher Education, 07 January 2015

Six months ago, one of Canada’s leading neuroscientists, Robert Brownstone, announced his resignation as director of research in neurosurgery at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, citing the Canadian government’s “worrisome” cuts to science funding and its shift towards applied research.

Three months into his new post as chair of neurosurgery at University College London, Brownstone is keen to point out that he also was “pulled” out of Canada by UCL’s “huge strength in neuroscience”. But he reiterates his relief at being able to leave behind “some of the depressing things that were happening” under Canada’s recently departed Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper.

“The previous government was not particularly interested in knowledge,” Brownstone says. “They would use policy to make knowledge rather than use knowledge to make policy. That was their attitude. What worried me was not so much [how it might impact on] anyone at my stage in their career, but [how it would affect] the young generation, who would be discouraged from pursuing a life in research.”

Brownstone’s views were widely shared by Canadian scientists. Indeed, such was the scale of their discontent that science policy even became an issue in the campaign leading up to last October’s federal election. And the Liberal Party of Canada’s pledges to redress the situation are considered to be one factor in its landslide victory, in which it won 184 seats, against the Conservatives’ 99.

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A common bone of contention was the Harper government’s moves to put a greater emphasis on commercialisation of research. According to Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital (which is affiliated to the University of Toronto), that aspiration was “clearly being enacted in terms of the types of funding programmes they wanted, the creation of a number of commercialisation centres and [the placing of] a lot more emphasis on research that would lead to product development. It was all really at the expense of a lot of basic science.”

Another gripe was the funding cuts of nearly 8 per cent imposed on Canada’s three research councils, known collectively as the Tri-Council Agencies, between 2007 (the year after the Conservatives came to power) and 2016. And, perhaps most prominently, critics railed against what Woodgett calls the Conservatives’ “command and control” mentality, which required government scientists to apply for permission before speaking to the press.

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Robinson is hopeful that the reinstatement of the long-form census is “part of a trend towards rebuilding some of the intellectual and scientific infrastructure that has been dismantled over the past 10 years”. But he acknowledges that there is still “a long way to go”. “There were a number of really important social surveys that were eliminated over the years because of programme cuts, and we’re hoping that there will be some reinvestment there,” he says.

“You have to make progress but you also have to recognise that repairing some of the damage that was done, particularly in our sector, is going to take time. I’m not sure if our folks are that patient. There’s a lot of pent-up frustration about the past 10 years that’s now coming to the fore.”

Margrit Eichler, faculty member of sociology and equity studies in education at Toronto, is also wary of being too optimistic. As president of campaign group Our Right to Know, launched during the Conservative government to fight for open access to research results, she has drafted a “huge list” of policies that she would like the new government to implement, which include a guarantee that it will not alter or ignore scientific research for political reasons; a requirement for all research funded by public money to be published; and the placing of more academics, as opposed to industry professionals, in charge of the research councils.

“We want to make sure the councils get their funding increase, that more money is directed to basic research and that the oversight is, in the majority, done by academics. The temptation not to [introduce these policies] will be very strong, as these things cost money, so we need to have a really strong civil society movement to say: ‘We continue to be interested in this and we continue to watch what you are doing,’” Eichler says.

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