Observers of the Harper government’s sometimes frayed relationship with Canadian researchers say they are not anticipating a substantive change in federal science policy after Monday’s cabinet shuffle.
Gary Goodyear, minister of state (science and technology) for the past five years, was replaced by Greg Rickford of Kenora in the shuffle.
Mr. Rickford was a nurse and lawyer before he was elected to Parliament in 2008, and his name has not been closely associated with science and technology issues in Canada before today. Before taking up the portfolio, he served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
“He’s got the political credentials, but that’s about it,” said Paul Dufour, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.
He added that Mr. Rickford will report to James Moore, the new federal Industry Minister, who has similarly little experience with science and technology issues. “Both of these guys are starting from scratch.”
Mr. Rickford’s most obvious connection to science policy may be coincidental and not a particularly positive one: His northwestern Ontario riding includes the Experimental Lakes Area, the federal research facility whose funding the government abruptly cut last year.
In May, Mr. Rickford announced the government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, based in Winnipeg, to transfer operation of the ELA. The government had been widely criticized for shuttering the facility, which conducts research on environmental contamination.
Scott Findlay, a University of Ottawa biologist and member of Evidence for Democracy, which advocates for transparency in federal science policy, said Mr. Rickford is an “unknown quantity” in the Canadian research community, as Mr. Goodyear was before him.
“Perhaps I am simply showing my bias here, but having a scientist at the helm of the federal science and technology ship would seem to be a worthwhile experiment to try for a change,” he said.
Dr. Findlay added that it may not make much difference who the minister is when so much of federal science policy is driven by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Whether he drove them or not, during his tenure Mr. Goodyear faced public ire over a range of federal science policies, from restrictions on media access to government researchers to earmarking grants for science in aid of private industry. Mr. Goodyear also made headlines in 2009 over whether he believes in evolution. He eventually said he did, albeit in a rather unscientific way.
Mr. Goodyear also clashed with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which has since launched a Get Science Right campaign that takes aim at federal policies it says are detrimental to the future of Canadian research.
The association’s president, Jim Turk, said the group will ask to meet with Mr. Rickford.
“This is a government that’s putting a moderate amount of money into science. It’s just spending the money badly,” he said. “We look forward to the chance to explain our concerns to him and see if there’s any openness to reconsider the direction they’re going.”