Government’s Offloading of Canadian Science is a Losing Strategy

The Harper Government’s neoliberal pursuit of a smaller bureaucracy has resulted in its off-loading of scientific endeavors. There are many examples where the government has withdrawn support from scientific research and left NGOs and individuals to step in to fill the void (see a list of some examples at the end of this article).

This may sound like a win-win situation: the research continues but the government no longer foots the bill. But there are very serious down-sides to off-loading science onto communities and non-governmental organizations.

When the government backs out of supporting science it erodes the stability of the Canadian science, jeopardizes safety and security, and threatens Canada’s long-term prosperity.

The Unique Value of Government Scientists

What are the consequences of losing scientific expertise from government? Can it be so bad if most researchers remain in Canada and continue to work in some capacity (albeit in the academic, NGO, or commercial sectors)?

In-house government scientists offer several things not found in the private or academic sectors. Though government scientists do collaborate with non-government colleagues, government scientists are unique for several reasons. Unlike their colleagues, government scientists are always on hand to offer policy makers confidential, reliable, and trust-worthy expertise; their mandate is to be well versed in broad subject areas with the ability to specialize in topics as needs arise; and their unique position allows them to respond to emergencies and unexpected phenomena.

Unlike other kinds of scientists, those working in the bureaucracy must, when asked, always offer up advice to policy makers and legislators. Sometimes these requests for scientific insight can be on very short notice and require a fast turnaround. In-house government expertise is important because it is confidential, readily available, and reliable—these are qualities academic and industrial researchers cannot always offer government officials. Non-governmental scientists, for example, can decline to help when asked to by the government because they may simply be too busy with the requirements of their day-job. Non-government scientists may have few incentives to maintain confidentiality; they could jeopardize a government project by alerting media to the line of questioning government officials are pursuing. Also, when an expert is consulted on a one-off basis there is no pre-established trusting and open line of communication between them and the policy maker whom they are helping and this may impede frank and open dialogue.

Secondly, government scientists know that it is part of their mandate to be able to respond to questions that broadly relate to their field. As such, they are required to keep abreast of developments on a wide variety of subjects. This is not necessarily true of academic researchers who can sometimes have very narrow research areas. The Canadian government cannot afford to have any scientific ‘blind spots’ in its understanding of issues and needs access to well-versed and versatile people with generalist approaches.

Lastly, government scientists are always on hand to immediately respond to the unexpected. For example, with the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa government virologists pushed their regular research aside and relocated to Africa to set up and operate a diagnostic lab. Academic researchers, with the pressure to publish and develop new knowledge in their fields, could not have dropped their research and university responsibilities to respond to this kind of emergency. As for industrial researchers, it is also hard to imagine a business stopping its pursuit of profit to volunteer months of their employees’ time to a non-profit humanitarian mission. The Canadian government needs this kind of in-house scientific expertise to be on hand in case of emergencies abroad and at home.

Unreliable funding and access: eroding Canadian research

When the government withdraws its support from research facilities like the Experimental Lakes Area and the James Clerk Maxwell telescope, researchers are sent scrambling. Sometimes careers and years of research are put into jeopardy when experiments cannot be completed. When the government shows a lack of commitment to science, a chill effect descends on Canada’s ability to attract and maintain the best and brightest researchers. The Canadian government is signaling that the research climate in Canada is unreliable—if you are a researcher in Canada, your research and career may have the carpet pulled out from under it at any moment.

Further, what does the government expect researchers to do when research facilities are suddenly shut down or access is taken away? Several researchers who have found themselves in this situation have launched grassroots campaigns and started fundraising—people with PhDs and years of expertise, some of the top Canadian scientists in their fields, have been forced into work completely unrelated to their training—to fight for the ability to continue on with their research. What a waste of talent and human resources! Would you rather a leading expert on fresh water be in the lab doing research or on the sidewalk handing out pamphlets?

This government has proved unable to provide a stable, predictable, and reliable research environment. When this specter is raised over a country’s scientific environment, the best go elsewhere.

Worse: destroying facilities rather than hand them over

As if it were bad enough when the government divests itself of world class facilities like the Experimental Lakes Area—worse still is when the government inhibits and purposefully blocks the transfer of a closing facility to a willing NGO. Hard to believe, but this is what happened to the Mersey Biodiversity Centre in Queens County, Nova Scotia.

Off the coast of Nova Scotia, Atlantic Salmon is headed for the Endangered Species List. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a centre, the Mersey Centre, devoted to rebuilding the stock—until it decided to close the facility. Alarmed and seeing the necessity for such a centre a community group, the Queens County Fish and Game Association, tried to step in to take over the centre. The community group was given a long and frustrating run-around by the federal and provincial governments. Finally, without warning in early 2014, the DFO moved in on the site and bulldozed key assets of the centre like its rearing ponds for breeding new fish. Rendered useless, there is no hope the Association can resurrect the facility.

Why would the government destroy instead of off-load a research facility? It is unclear but it may be because research in this area threatened the interests of the salmon farming industry.

Conclusion

                A healthy research environment needs long term reliable stable support from the government. It is a waste for Canadian society when academic researchers must run fundraising campaigns instead of doing research in their field of expertise. As for government scientists, Canadians need them both for their expertise when drafting legislation and for their ability to respond to emergencies. Off-loading scientific expertise and support for facilities from the government onto interested groups and individuals is bad for Canada. Tell this government it needs to Get Science Right.

Examples of the government “offloading” important research

  • DFO eliminated its contaminants & toxicology program, putting Canada’s only expert in marine mammal toxicology out of work. consequently, the Vancouver Aquarium starts up its own marine toxicology program to fill this gaping void.
  • The government tried to shutdown Experimental Lakes Area.Public pressure forced the government to hand over of the facility to an NGO… an NGO which may find it difficult to raise the necessary money to keep the facility viable.
  • The government mothballed Agriculture Canada’s Cereal Research Centre – key in developing several grain strands used by Canadian farmers today. These grain strands were in no way controlled by or used for the profit of the federal government. The expectation is that private (for-profit) industry will pick up the research and develop new crops in the future. Obviously, these crops will be patented and seeds will be controlled for profit.
  • Several Canadian astronomical researchers relied heavily on the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii. The telescope had been a joint international project into which the Canadian government had invested over $80 million dollars. But in 2014 the government declined to contribute its $700k portion. Without the financial backing to support their access to the facility, the researchers took on their own fundraising campaign. Eventually they brokered their own deal with the research facility to exchange their expertise for some limited access time.
  • The government is no longer interested in operating the research labs at the Chalk River reactors. Publicly the government has stated it is in-search of a private sector manager to take over management of the research laboratories. Researchers in this field have doubts this will improve their access to the facility and are increasingly looking to American laboratories for alternate sites.