In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote that around half of scientists in the world at some point find themselves at least partially dependent on the military to fund their research — and that this is a problem. Today, that’s still true. But another serious problem is the privatization of “public” scientific research. Under the Harper Government™ this has proceeded on three fronts, one of which has occupied most of this blog’s attention recently.
At major research institutions around the country, a profound change is taking place. Programs are being taken over by corporatists — not just administrators with an inadequate knowledge of the gritty details. Objectives are being quietly altered to reflect commercial priorities rather than basic scientific ones, which often can’t guarantee short-term industrial applications. Some important research programs that have so far thrived in the public sector are simply being handed over to the private sector on the dubious grounds that they will somehow run them more effectively. In at least one case I’ll discuss, these have an enormous added cost which won’t appear anywhere in the contracts.
I’ll start here with the first of these. It’s hard to tackle the first point (management transition) and the second point (goal shift) separately, because of course they’re tightly related. But I’m going to lead with the first anyway, because it allows me to pick up where I left off with the latest posts in my ongoing series on Conservative fraudster Bruce Carson. Bruce is one such insurgent administrator, at the Canada School of Energy and Environment. He has no background in science. Yet we are supposed to believe that a rigorous “international search” by the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, and the University of Lethbridge found him and his deputy director, Zoe Addington, best qualified to head what was supposed to be a cutting-edge clean energy research centre.
What both of them do have in common, and what presumably sufficed as credentials, is their connections to the Harper Government™ that supplied $15 million in seed money: Carson is a long-time senior Harper aide, and Addington was the aide for the industry minister, Tony Clement. They promptly turned the school into a clearinghouse for industry ideas on the science-policy interface, rather than a booster for new scientific research on alternative energy. Carson took this to extreme lengths by simultaneously taking hup a leadership post at the energy industry advocacy group Energy Policy Institute of Canada (offline for several days during the Carson scandal, but now back up), and at the industry-funded School of Public Policy, which has literally posted a research agenda sale on its Website.
Why put such people into leadership positions at a research institution? The only reason I can think of is that the government actually didn’t want it to be a leading research institute in the first place. It’s hard to believe Carson would take the school wandering off in such a strange new direction unless he got the okay to do so in the first place.
Takeover of SSHRC
Carson is only the tip of the iceberg, though. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my discipline’s granting agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), said new grad student grants would go to projects that demonstrate business applications, not academic research potential. SSHRC managed to bargain this down to a narrow subset of new funding, but it was a scary moment when it seemed as though the entire Council might be knocked over for the benefit of commerce and economics students.
SSHRC’s senior staff still consists of civil servants and academics, like president Chad Gaffield (a historian, I’m pleased to say). But the Council has distinctly changed. Back in 2004, there were 22 members, including fifteen university academics (one of them a business professor), an independent scholar, a newspaper publisher, and a foundation rep. The president was a Quebec sociologist, and the vice-president was from an NGO that did social policy research in Newfoundland.
Today we’re down to 16 members. The president is still a historian, but the vice-president, Thomas Kierans, is a financial executive who used to lead the C.D. Howe Institute. They are joined by a second ex-C.D. Howe Institute executive with a financial background, two lawyers, two more businessmen, two supposed “professors” on the tail end of careers in corporate management, a Montreal charity executive, and just six academics, one of them inexplicably imported from NSERC and another of whom has been funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation. Basically, the voting bloc that decides SSHRC policy over its $300 million in annual grants has completely shifted, in just five years, from universities to corporations. Is it any wonder SSHRC tried to force through a pro-business policy change?
Takeover of NSERC
And how about SSHRC’s big brother, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)? It dispenses almost $1 billion a year. In 2005, its 17 full members included a president who was a retired academic, eleven other academics, two business reps (RIM and SemBioSys), the president of the National Research Council (NRC), an astronaut, and a museum director.
Once again, the president (Suzanne Fortier) is still a chemist, but the vice-president is a former Mulroney cabinet minister, of all things. They’ve fared better than SSHRC, mind you. Five members are academics (though at least one are pursuing substantial business interests on the side). There’s also a former Fraser Institute executive director with no science background, a lottery executive, a corporate management consultant, two former financial industry executives, the head of Science Alberta, and former executives and chemists from four multinational companies. As at SSHRC, the majority is now possessed by the industry side of the table.
Almost as disturbing as the presence of Mark Mullans from the Fraser Institute is one of the academics, Peter Blatz, an engineer who also sits on the board of the Fraser Institute’s rabid climate change denial cousin, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Incidentally, Blatz also supports tuition increases, on the dubious pretext that students who don’t pay for their fair share of the cost of their education are “cheating themselves” out of an opportunity to take pride in their achievements.
Takeover of the National Research Council
I’m going to step up for a moment and look at a higher level, the National Research Council, which actually carries out its own research (NSERC and SSHRC don’t). In the past this has included everything from inventing the pacemaker to running official cover for one of Canada’s spy agencies, now know as the Communications Security Establishment (but once known as the NRC Communications Branch). The CSE are the ones getting the new billion-dollar headquarters building, complete with Zamboni. The NRC transmits the time signal you can hear every day on CBC.
The NRC’s executive had six members in 2005, but has swelled to eight. The president, Pierre Coulombe, was a former academic, corporate executive, and civil servant, which is impressive. Four others rose through the ranks internally, and the sixth was a corporate executive who used to be at Telus (among other positions). Of the eight today, five came up internally, one is a civil servant, one comes from MDS Nordion, and the president, significantly, is an Albertan petroleum engineer, John McDougall. His dubious deeds at NRC will be the major subject of a future post in this series.
NRC’s executive is overseen, like at the other institutes, by a board. In 2005, the board was already imbalanced, with seven academics, eight corporate executives and researchers, a civil servant, and a corporate consultant. Now there’s the above-mentioned Mr. McDougall, plus three from universities, five corporate executives, two civil servants, a business school director, and a labour lawyer whose only relevant credential is donating money to the industry minister. All in all this board has seen the least change, but the reforms which are taking place at NRC, which will be discussed shortly, are much more significant.
And All the Rest
And these are only the elite granting and research institutions. You can follow it straight down to the bottom rung, individual research centres, where partisan hacks like Bruce Carson lurk. That’s where we also find, for instance, Carson’s former colleague in the Conservative insider ranks, finance minister aide David McLaughlin, who now heads up the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and is presumably doing just as good a job there as Carson was at the Canada School of Energy. Or Carbon Management Canada, another government centre that Carson was quietly chairing until last month.
I have previously been accused of attempting to discredit the Canadian academic sector. That’s not really my intention, at least any more than it deserves. Right now I rely on that sector for my living, after all. But these are disturbing trends. Cash-strapped universities are already depending on corporate backers for everything from labs, professorships, to whole buildings. This money routinely comes with conditions that undermine both the independence and the credibility of the research it funds. Government is a vital check on this, but instead of fending off corporate influence on academic research, the Harper Government™ is actively encouraging it.Tweet