Fighting the War on Science Funding

In case you hadn’t heard, American geoscientists are in a fight for their (funding) lives, as the Republican-dominated Congress moves to make drastic cuts to geoscience budgets. From demanding that NASA focus more on space and less on earth observation, to creating their own definition of what constitutes ‘pure science’ – and thus which of NSF’s six research directorates should be funded – the debate appears to be ideologically rather than factually motivated.
Across the US, individual scientists and scientific organizations have stepped up to defend and promote geoscience. Volcanologist Erik Klemetti penned an article in Wired magazine, while both the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America have released official statements outlining the importance of geoscience to society, and the misguidedness of these potential funding decisions. Other science-based organizations have followed suit, including the Energy Science Coalition and the Geoscience Societies (which represents 19 geoscience-related societies).
Here in Canada, we’re also experiencing a war on science – for details see John Dupuis’ exhaustive chronology, last updated in October of 2014. But there are some differences between the US and the Canadian wars on science.
In the US, the (current) attack is obvious and direct. Research funding is being cut and scientific priorities are being reevaluated. In Canada, the attack is more insidious. Research centres have disappeared, access to scientific information has declined, libraries have closed, and government scientists have been laid off. At the same time, the government claims to be investing more than any previous government in science funding, though several analyses of the latest federal budget in terms of science and technology spending reveal three main trends:

  1. Accounting for inflation, research funding to the three main granting agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR) has declined on average 9% since 2009.
  2. Research funding is being directed towards applied rather than basic research – and in very specific fields.
  3. While some funding remains in place to support research infrastructure (e.g., Canadian Foundation for Innovation), this funding is declining. It’s also a moot point if researchers don’t have the money to actually do research using that infrastructure.

So what are Canadians doing about the war on science?
The majority of Canadian science advocacy has centred – fairly effectively – around maintaining access to scientific information and using that information in policy making.
Groups like Evidence for Democracy (founded by Dr. Katie Gibbs, who organized ‘Death of Evidence’ rallies to protest the muzzling of federal scientists while still a PhD student at the University of Ottawa) and Scientists for the Right to Know push for the use of research-based evidence in policy and decision-making. At the same time, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents ~15,000 scientists and engineers, is aiming to include scientific integrity language in their collective agreement, which would allow them to talk freely to the public about their science.
When it comes to actual science funding, advocacy is left to individual scientists and/or individual programs.
For example, when the government-run Experimental Lakes Area research program was slated to be shut down because its $2 million/yr operating budget had been cut, Dr. Diane Orihel initiated the Save the ELA campaign. At the time, Orihel was a University of Alberta PhD student studying at the ELA. She put her PhD on hold, assembled an excellent volunteer team, and went to bat for the ELA. The campaign resulted in the successful transfer of the ELA to the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg.
Another example is the closure of the PEARL research lab in the Canadian Arctic, which was precipitated by funding cuts to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS). University of Toronto graduate student Dan Weaver (now an E4D Board Member) created a Save PEARL social media campaign to raise awareness of research at the facility, resulting in ordinary Canadians contributing $10,000 in funding, and many letters of support from the international research community. While the station had to shift down to basic operations for a year while trying to find more funding, they managed to secure additional funds in 2013 to keep the station operational.
Other programs and funding sources have not been so lucky. The NSERC Major Resources Support program was cut, Environment Canada’s weather service was cut – as was their Sustainable Water Management Division, and countless academic research projects – including valuable long term environmental monitoring programs – have fallen by the wayside.
Researchers talk at conferences and over coffee or after-work drinks about the changing research environment, the difficulty in getting funding, the requirement for industrial research partners – and the legacy left for up and coming scientists. Canadian scientists have always had the sense of ‘doing more with less’ relative to their US counterparts, but you can only hold a research program together with duct tape and baling wire for so long before you reach the limit.
So what’s being done about these funding issues? The response is unfortunately not as coordinated as the efforts of E4D and Scientists for the Right to Know to push for evidence-based decision making.
As Alan Emery writes in this Sigma Xi opinion piece: “…’war’ on science? There’s no war unless both sides are fighting. Remarkably, science is not fighting back.” He goes on to say that science needs powerful allies, outside of the usual realm of students, granting agencies and university administrators.
The better the public understands how what you do relates to them personally, the more likely they are to support funding it. A recent Canadian poll showed that 84% of Canadians would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supported increased funding for health and medical research. They understand the link between health research and their everyday lives – and are willing to support it. We should aim to develop the same public support for research in all fields.
While many individual researchers are excellent at promoting the real world benefits of their research – by writing opinion pieces on their research, for example, like this one on carbon conservation in forests and peatlands by Jeffrey Wells and Nigel Roulet – they can’t do it alone. Scientists need strength in numbers to give them a (somewhat) united national voice: a representative organization that promotes their research field to policy makers and the media, and that demonstrates to the public its importance to society. They need a science lobby – kind of like the oil, environmental, or healthcare lobbies.
This is where our scientific organizations can step in, as the AGU, GSA, and others have in the US. They can network not only with the government and granting agencies, but can engage directly with the public – to share with them the importance of the research their members do, and the reason that continued funding for this research is important. AGU and GSA are not only making statements to Congress – they’re issuing press releases and getting the word out to the public about the importance of geoscience.
Some organizations are working at being more involved. The Society of Canadian Limnologists was actively involved in the Save the ELA campaign, sending letters to politicians, networking with the public via social media, and spreading the word about the ELA. The Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (CMOS) contributed to the federal discussion on the importance of science and technology in Canada – but this discourse focused on the government rather than the public. A new group, Research to Reality, has developed a video series to showcase Canadian research to the public. However, it’s focused largely on a few Canadian research-intensive universities, and is thus not entirely representative of Canadian science as a whole.
If we’re serious about supporting and maintaining funding for Canadian science, we need our science organizations to promote Canadian science – preferably as a group – to policy makers and the public, and show its relevance. It’s true that, as a sparsely populated country relative to the US, it’s more difficult to develop and maintain a united science front as AGU, GSA, and other organizations have done.
But we have to make the effort, because at some point no amount of duct tape will fix the scientific funding situation in Canada.
NB – The NDP is proposing a Parliamentary Science Officer (PSO) which would link science with government decision making. I’ve written about this previously, but in the specific case of advocating on behalf of science funding, I think we need lobbying from our scientific organizations rather than a PSO.

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