Waterloo, ON – The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has kicked off a cross-country series of town halls aimed at engaging the public in a discussion about the impact of funding cuts to basic research and the muzzling of government scientists. Community members and researchers gathered at the first gathering, which took place on September 17 at Waterloo Public Library in Waterloo to share their worries about the federal government’s narrow approach to scientific research and discovery.
Craig Norris, the host of the Morning Edition on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, moderated the discussion featuring a trio of prominent local academic researchers from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.
The panelists described a trend of decreasing access to research opportunities for government scientists and university researchers as a result of government policies. They agreed that the federal government’s obsession with industry-focused research and immediate commercial application posed serious risks for the public. They also noted that strict control over how government scientists share and communicate research results violates the purpose of public scientific inquiry.
“Science is the original open source,” remarked Dr. Jeffrey Jones, director of Wilfrid Laurier’s cognitive neuroscience research centre.
Redirecting basic research funds to cater to the needs of industry is misguided and dangerous, Jones explained. It undermines opportunities for research in areas where profit may not be a priority, and where a commercial application may not be found for many years.
“The theory of relativity is used in every GPS calculation,” added Melanie Campbell, University of Waterloo physics and optometry professor, illustrating why the application of many scientific discoveries cannot be predicted in advance.
When Norris asked what research might be “politically inconvenient” to current decision makers, panelists pointed to disciplines where established research contradicted current government policy plans, such as crime and the environment.
“Criminologists are unlikely to produce research to support this government’s crime and punishment agenda and climate scientists have been critical of the government’s position on the environment,” said David DeVidi, philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo. “It makes these disciplines rather inconvenient to them.”
On the question of innovation, panelists criticized the notion that universities should be expected to be driving innovation.
“Industry is not doing enough of their own research; it doesn’t mean that universities should be taking on the role of innovation on their behalf,” said Campbell.
Jones added, “We can’t expect that a private for-profit company would have the same goals as a public researcher in mind. Industry’s goals are seriously different than what we do in public research.”
CAUT is very concerned that the federal government has increasingly targeted funding to specific projects and institutions and has tied this funding to industry needs, such as through the transformation of the National Research Council into a “concierge” for industry and the introduction of the Exchange Grants Program which is intended to address “company-specific” problems.
Meanwhile, it says, the funding for the federal granting councils, which have traditionally supported basic research, has steadily declined.
Town halls are being planned for regions across the country. The next stop is on October 24 in Edmonton. More information is available at getscienceright.ca.