Negative effects that reach beyond “hard science”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Written by David DeVidi, this article was originally published in the Canadian Association of University Teachers' (CAUT) Get Science Right featured articles. 

Other researchers and scientists have spoken out about the harmful implications for the long-term interests of the country of de-funding basic, curiosity-driven research, more eloquently than I could. So I’d like to focus on other parts of the story.

This isn’t only a “hard science” problem.  Canada’s ability to do the sorts of research that must be done in any society interested in intelligently governing itself is being compromised.   The ill-considered changes at Library and Archives Canada – involving the elimination of research specialists, loss of the comprehensive collection, and increases in researcher costs – are making it more difficult for historians to do their work.  The killing of the long form census is already a problem for economists, political scientists, public health officials, urban planners, and others.  The more expensive and less worthwhile “household survey” that replaced it is not completely useless (yet) because we can benchmark its results against the 2006, real census. But as time goes on, the household survey will not just be more costly than the long form census, but of ever-declining value. These changes to how we collect and report basic information about ourselves and our country will have far-reaching negative effects on our ability to meet our needs and build our society.

This isn’t only a university research problem.  Nobody has the expertise and incentive to do a good job on some research that is crucial to the public good except scientists who work in the public service.  Accolades for professors might come from discovering the next big thing; scientists in the private sector are working to get the next big thing to market. But who has the incentive to monitor whether the next big thing is harmful or beneficial? What if the next big thing is, for instance, killing all the bees or poisoning the lakes? We need someone to be always looking at those questions.  As the ranks of government scientists decline, Canada is losing the capacity to do this work.

The gag orders on scientists, librarians and archivists, and others who work for the federal government are appalling and socially harmful.  The idea that in a democratic society we will pay people to do research but then not let them share the results of that research with the public who paid for it – because, it seems, avoiding embarrassing the government is more important – is likely to strike anyone who thinks about it as ludicrous. 

But this climate of silencing also has less obvious side effects.  It’s an alarming trend among university administrators to think that it’s important to “keep the university’s message focused and positive,” including keeping research that runs contrary to government policy from gaining much publicity – which, to my mind, is a rather grave failure to understand what universities are actually for. Which university will be the first to try to put a gag order on their faculty of the sort government departments have put on their scientists?  It may happen sooner than we think.

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