Seizing Canada’s Scientists: A Dissenter’s View

To the Honourable James Moore, Greg Rickford, Stephen Harper, and Industry Canada:

I see that today is the last day to hand in a response to the Harper Government™‘s quietly-released “consultation paper” on Science, Technology and Innovation. Based on an eponymous Speech from the Throne, the paper is titled “Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation.” The only other responses I’ve been able to find online are the thorough and thoughtful ones by scientists here and here. The first is from an organization of concerned scientists that “advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making.” The second is from a scientist/editor who wistfully notes that “I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone at Industry Canada will actually read my note, nor do I think it’ll actually make any kind of a difference, but I thought I should at least make some effort to engage.” As a defender of pure and applied research based on good libraries and an open-access information network, the beleaguered editor has good reason to feel that her government will not heed her.

The Seizing paper in question aggressively declares the Harper Government™’s intention to steer research by our federal government and institutions of higher learning in the direction of short-term “business innovation” at the expense of public interest. As one might expect from the only nation in the world to have renounced the Kyoto Protocol, the message is couched entirely in macho, platitudinous bizspeak: it’s all about seizing, competing and leveraging, or winning an imagined “global race for excellence, talent and prosperity.” In  this my own modest effort to engage, I will question three bogus and dangerous assumptions underlying this latest effort to make all federally-funded workers succumb to the Harper ideology.

Will it really make us all richer?

According to the Seizing paper, if we redirect as much government money as possible toward the “greater commercialization of research and development” in the private sector, then it will enhance “the standard of living and prosperity of all Canadians” by giving us “high-paying jobs.” We’ve all heard this story before. This is the old trickle-down, play-by-the-rules-and-you’ll-succeed theory of unfettered economic growth that the champions of private industry have been shoving down our throats since the age of Thatcher and Reagan. Yet in the ensuing decades the many policy shifts in a corporate-friendly direction have not even come close to making “all Canadians” richer. Here as elsewhere in the world, the most noticeable result of neoliberal policy initiatives has been the ever-increasing gap between the 1% and the 99%. And for many of us the options are shrinking. As one of the countless thousands of federal knowledge workers who’ve lost their shirts due to recent Harper Government™ abolitions I can readily attest that the new economy has radically reduced services and made many of us poorer that ever.

What counts as a significant discovery?

It’s important to understand that the government’s claim to support “discovery-driven research” (as opposed to what, one might ask) covers up more than it reveals. In recent decades the single most momentous advance in human knowledge—chiefly thanks to the sustained and concerted efforts of government- and university-based researchers worldwide—has surely been the scientific consensus around the devastating ecological impact of all of this seizing, competing, leveraging and racing. Because this discovery doesn’t fit with the agenda of facilitating the “greater commercialization of [government] research and development,” the Harper Government™ has recently gone to enormous lengths to muzzle, discontinue, and destroy all confirmation of human impact on the environment, as revealed on the Get Science Right and Evidence for Democracy websites, and as summarized in the excellent Silence of the Labs episode of CBC’s Fifth Estate.

In Harper Government™ speak “discovery-driven research” simply means “research for business.” This funding imperative is a sneaky form of corporate subsidy that kills two birds with one stone, by allocating money towards big business, and away from any evidence that might cause us to question the unfettered financialization and commercialization of absolutely everything.

Should business profit really be the main priority in public policy?

The Seizing paper takes for granted that we should measure our country’s research success solely in terms of financial prosperity. I think that’s a dangerous approach, and that we’d be better off measuring impact in many domains at once. Even most big businesses now at least pay lip service to a triple bottom line (i.e. economic, social and environmental impact), which is more than Industry Canada and our law-and-business-educated Minister of Science are doing with their relentless focus on profit. It used to be taken as self-evident in democratic societies that governments should put the well-being of the people (and, in recent years, the planet) over financial profitability or any other single agenda. I worry about any society that’s losing this core conviction—especially my own country, which until recently had such robust traditions of research and democracy.

To show what I mean by measuring in different areas and striving for well-being, I would propose the following quadruple-bottom-line as an indication of the kinds of outcomes that any reasonable government should be striving to achieve and measure.

HEALTHY PEOPLE: Promote the mental and physical help of people at home and abroad; increase the government commitment to preventive health care, in domains such as food safety, air quality and medical care, including rehabilitation; health education; public transit infrastructure; 

HEALTHY DEMOCRACY: Promote free speech; open data; free, well-informed, fact-based exchange of ideas about Canada’s past, present and future; cooperation and collaboration; focus on the common good;

HEALTHY PLANET: Promote responsible stewardship of land, air and wildlife; engage in good good global citizenship by agreeing to international accords;

HEALTHY ECONOMY: Promote an economy that is geared towards sustainability and the common good, as distinct from the current concentration on short-term economic growth-at-all-costs for businesses.

These hastily-assembled categories and examples are obviously not exclusive; the same kinds of goals could just as easily be stated in three or five categories. They could also just as easily be listed in alphabetical order (Democracy, Economy, People, Planet) because the whole object is to avoid prioritizing any single concern. Rather, a wide range of factors should be considered in any decision, since, as a rule, exclusive focus in any one area tends to be bad for the bigger picture. For instance (returning to the the Silence of the Labs example) the undemocratic treatment of scientists by the Harper Government™ (e.g. suppression of speech about the sharing of information relating to the common good) can be bad for the people and planet (putting our health at risk), and bad for the economy (sacrificing long-term social, economic and ecological sustainability in favour of financial return in the moment).

I regret that the institution formerly known as the Government of Canada did not involve subject matter experts (i.e. representatives of the scientific community at large) in the formulation and development of this alarming new policy proposal. If and when this “consultation” process comes to naught I hope that others will speak up, by petitioning our elected representatives; by writing to the editors of our local and national newspapers; and, at the end of the day, by reclaiming our country at the ballot box.



[UPDATE 11 Feb: In a single day (10 Feb) this post received over 100 views in seven countries. Not bad for a little Yopp about Canadian science policy. And at time of writing the YouTube bootleg (above) of CBC’s Silence of the Labs had received 12.3K hits, less than a month after its release. If you care about this issue, you can help get the word out by linking Twitter (E4D link to current page here) Reddit (here), FB, email, &c. 17 Feb: “hides” changed to “reveals.” That makes more sense! 18 Feb: I’ve just came across this excellent CAUT response sent out on the same day as my own. -GL]


4 thoughts on “Seizing Canada’s Scientists: A Dissenter’s View

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