Not To Be Trusted With Knives

{October 9, 2008}   Science and the Election

Note: This blog posting is going to be a long one. I’ve been writing it for days. But it’s so worth the read, if you are interested in science, education, the Canadian election, or hearing my ongoing rants about the Conservative* party.

Today Yesterday The other day, I read this story on the CBC: Researchers wonder: What’s the plan for R&D?. Some of the key things that jumped out to me:

  • “On Sept. 17, federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion did pledge a 60 per cent increase of funding for university-based research — to $500 million a year — and proposed a $100-million fund to enable scientists, researchers and graduate students to take on projects that extend beyond the barriers of their disciplines.  But the topic was soon buried under the larger issue of government spending, with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper that same day calling the spending proposals of Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton “mind-boggling” in size.”
  • The Conservatives have not issued their party platform, but neither they nor the other party leaders has devoted a speech to science-related issues outside the environment.”
  • Scientists “expressed dismay at political parties that want to build a knowledge economy but seem unwilling to contribute to it.
  • “Funding was the top concern: few scientists can complain about current funding levels, but some worry about the future of the funding while others worry those funds are becoming too narrowly focused on industrial spinoffs or favoured established programs at the expense of new initiatives.|

Few scientists can complain about current funding levels?” What? The Canadian Institutes of Health Research – the federal funding agency for research related to health and the agency with which I’m most familiar – has very depressing rates of funding: exact numbers depend on the particular grant competition, but it’s fair to say that you can expect ~ 25% success rate1,2 when you submit a grant application (i.e., 3 of every 4 grant applications submitted won’t get funded). And that’s not because the grant applications aren’t high quality.  They have a category called “Fundable, But Not Funded,” which basically it means that the proposed research is of high enough quality that it should be funded, but there’s no money for it.  According to a recent CIHR Operating Grant Program Analysis2, the success rate of “fundable but not funded” grant application is only ~30% – that means that 2 out of 3 high quality research applications submitted to the operating grant competition are not funded.

As I’ve mentioned before, the National Science Adviser to the Prime Minister was first shunted to the Industry Ministry (which shows how the Harper government views science – in their view, science is only important if you can make money from it) and then canned completely.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, the Harper government is willing to completely ignore scientific evidence and oppose Vancouver’s supervised injection facility, claiming that there isn’t enough science to back it up (I suppose all the scientific evidence that they choose to ignore doesn’t count?).

Shortly after reading that article, my friend and scientist extraordinaire, Mel Kardel, sent me and some other colleagues a summary of each of the main political parties’3 stances on science and on students, which she created by going through each of their platforms and searching for “science” and “student”4. Would you believe that the Conservative* party platform does not include the word “student” even one time? Oh yeah, the Conservative* party *finally* released their platform. One week before the election. The election that THEY called. And after some people have already voted in advance polls. Anyway. The only mentions of “education” in their 44-page document were vague references to “provid[ing] practical help to Canadian families to assist them with higher costs of living, and protect them from unfair retail practices so that families can focus on the things in life that matter most, like buying their first home and saving for their children’s education.” Which basically sounds like “as for actually paying for education – you’re on your own!” Oh wait, on page 9 it says that they’ll let charities and NPOs create RESPs for kids. Isn’t this like saying “hey poor people, want your kids to go to college? You better ask a charity, because the Conservative* government isn’t going to help!” And then there’s the vague: “Improving Aboriginal education is crucial to giving young members of the Aboriginal community the opportunity to succeed.” No mention on *how* they are going to improve Aboriginal education. Awesome.

As for science, the only mention of science in their platform is the claim that they “made major new investments in leading-edge science over the past three budgets, which will increase support for science and technology by $850 million by 2009-10,” (with no indication that most of this was directed very specific, industry-focuses areas rather than the basic sciences), a claim that they will “make additional investments in internationally recognized science and technology projects in Canada,” (with no suggestion of how much that investment will be, or in what areas).  And there’s a promise to “build a world-class High Arctic Research Station that will be on the cutting edge of Arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development.”  And that’s it for education and science in the Conservative* party’s platform.  For real.

In contrast, the Liberals, NDP and Green Party all talk extensively about science and education in their platforms. I can provide you with the full details if you like, but in view of the fact that this blog posting has gotten quite long (!), I’ll just hit you with some highlights here:


  • increase in the indirect costs of university based research to $500 per year
  • increased funding for both CIHR and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to $1.275 billion/year (from $960 million) and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Council (SSHRC) to $450 million a year (from $320 million), plus $100 for interdisciplinary research
  • an Education grant of $1000/yr for postsecondary students, plus a $250 tax credit for students who also work
  • increased grants and bursaries for students in need
  • an extension of the post-graduation interest-free period before you have to start paying off your student loan from 6 months to 2 years, plus lower interest rates on student loans (man, could I ever use that!)


  • $1000 grant to students who qualify for student loans
  • more funding to universities and keeping tuition fees affordable (although I’d argue with the word “keeping” here, as tuition fees are *not* currently affordable)
  • reforming student loan system, including interest relief for students completing an internship after graduation
  • increased funding for research and for grad students (to keep the best and brightest here in Canada)

Green Party:

  • “Post-secondary education should not be a debt sentence”  Hee hee. Debt sentence.
  • forgiving 50% of your student loans when you graduate (holy crap! that would have amounted to a $35,000 grant for me!)
  • increased funding to universities
  • working with provinces to lower tuition fees
  • “Fund universities to create more tenure track teaching positions, regardless of perceived commercial value of the area of pedagogy.”

Now, I realize that the proof is in the pudding and we’ll only know if anyone will follow through with these promises once they get into power. But I also think it’s pretty clear that the Conservatives* have no intention whatsoever of doing anything for students or for scientists.  At least the other parties have promises for which we can hold them accountable.  Time to replace Harper!

1How to Prepare a CIHR Application, University of Western Ontario
2Operating Grant Program Analysis
3Not including the Bloc, ‘cuz we can’t vote for them here in BC.
4My friends rock.


Kalev says:

Wait a second, NSERC gets nearly THREE times what SSHRC gets?! I knew there was a discrepancy but MAN!

Harper and his Conservatives* really must go. Of course, they’re going up in the polls again after dropping earlier this week. Obviously their inattention to education is totally paying off.

(Yes, I mean to say Canadians are fucking stupid morons.)

Raul says:

@ Kalev – Yup. Apparently social sciences aren’t needed in Canada. These government agencies are moronic!

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