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CAUT executive director David Robinson, seen in Ottawa on Tuesday, says ‘basic research is the real fundamental driver of innovation.’Dave Chan

Canadian universities are shying away from research into such controversial topics as immigration and assisted suicide because of the federal Conservative government's continued focus on matching research grants to corporate interests, experts and advocates say.

Overall funding has dipped about 6 per cent in the past eight years for all three federal granting councils – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – according to federal budget data provided by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

The budget for the SSHRC – the smallest of the three and the principal funding source for humanities and social science research – shrank the most (10.5 per cent) over that period. CAUT's executive director David Robinson, who represents 68,000 Canadian teachers, librarians and researchers at 122 colleges and universities, said basic, blue-sky research often forms the intangible building blocks of later applied discoveries.

"The evidence throughout history is absolutely clear that basic research is the real fundamental driver of innovation," Mr. Robinson said. "That's the underlying political context and economic reality in which universities are operating right now … they understand that governments are pressuring them to invest in short-term applied research."

The CAUT data was culled from federal budgets and departmental performance reports starting in 2007, the year the Conservatives first implemented their Mobilizing Science and Technology vision for research priorities. It was adjusted for inflation based on 2010 dollars.

Federal funding to tri-councils (in millions)

During the past eight years, targeted grants for natural-science research increased by a third, according to the CAUT data. Those grants required matching funds from industry or other partners – such as a charity or provincial government – or were allocated to specific areas such as energy, health sciences or advanced manufacturing as identified by the federal government.

In that same period, basic research, which is driven by investigators and not corporate or government imperatives, decreased almost 10 per cent, the data show.

The office of the Minister of State for Science and Technology disputed the figures, providing data from 2005 to 2014 that showed an overall increase of roughly 5 per cent once inflation was factored in, but that included money earmarked by the previous Liberal government.

Scott French, a spokesman for the minister, said last year's budget provided the largest annual funding increase for research through the three granting councils in over a decade and that the government has launched a legacy $1.5-billion applied research excellence fund.

Arthur Schafer, head of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said since the Tories came to power in 2006 they have prioritized applied research and cut funding to social-science research, which has meant "universities are being transmogrified by the retreat of government."

"They want research that's going to be marketable, they want research that's going to, very directly, translate into products – that means corporate," Mr. Schafer said. "We don't serve the community, we serve the corporate sponsor and if our research doesn't please that corporate sponsor we don't get funded and our research careers are at their end."

Mr. Schafer said a wider trend of institutions shying away from controversial research was demonstrated in the recent case of Surrey's Kwantlen Polytechnic University, which barred assisted-suicide researcher Russel Ogden from teaching or researching in its name, while paying him a full-time salary the past six years and silencing him with a confidentiality agreement.

"We have a government in Ottawa at the moment that won't let its own scientists speak out," Mr. Schafer said. "That's supposed to be the distinction between people who do research at universities and scientists who work for a private employer or the government." He added that Mr. Ogden's case is symptomatic of a "failure to understand what a university is and should be."

Mr. Ogden had also defended his human research subjects' anonymity in court, something that doesn't happen often in academia but is "very, very labour-intensive" for lawyers like Peter Jacobsen.

Mr. Jacobsen represents such media companies as The Globe and Mail and CTV. In 2013, he successfully defended two University of Ottawa sex-trade researchers against a Montreal police warrant for their six-year-old interview with Luka Magnotta. Mr. Magnotta had agreed to the interview after being told his identity and responses would be kept confidential, and in January, 2014, a Quebec Superior Court judge refused to let murder investigators get access to the interview after nearly a year-long court case.

"It is now clear that the courts do recognize a research participant's privilege in Canada in the same way they recognize a reporter's confidential source's privilege," Mr. Jacobsen said. "Is it more important to maintain that confidentiality so that information flow won't dry up, or is it vital to some aspect of the case to have this information known?

"Our society values academic research, and if you read the decision in Magnotta it's a very thorough decision where the judge goes through the benefits of this research to the public," Mr. Jacobsen said.

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