Warren Wakarchuk was driving on the 401 when he heard his boss on the radio. Wakarchuk had worked at the National Research Council (NRC) for the last 20 years. That day, the new president was on the radio to announce changes to how the NRC would function. It was the beginning of the end of his career as a federal scientist.
Wakarchuk and two other Ryerson science professors who used to work for the government, Michael Arts and Lynda McCarthy, say that the state of scientific research in Canada has been compromised, and its governing policies need to change. Since leaving for Ryerson, they say they’re freer to pursue and publicize the research they’re passionate about.
“Having your intellectual freedom restored and being able to work on things that you know, as a scientist, are important — that’s really wonderful. … The sky’s the limit at Ryerson”
Arts says that, while here, he has pursued research he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.
In late 2014, he was an author on a highly publicized paper about the “jellification” of lakes in northern Ontario. Baby fish in northern lakes have been unable to eat in these jellified lakes, so fewer and fewer are making it to adulthood, which affects entire ecosystems. This, he says, is characteristic of the research that would have been cut at Environment Canada.
“Having your intellectual freedom restored and being able to work on things that you know, as a scientist, are important — that’s really wonderful. … The sky’s the limit at Ryerson,” he says.
“If I have a great idea and I can find the funding, I can go ahead and do it.”
Arts has spoken to both the Toronto Star and the CBC about this research. He says he couldn’t have done that when he worked for the government.
The government policy on scientific research has fundamentally shifted. John McDougall, president of the NRC, the government’s primary research foundation, announced that day on the radio that it would no longer perform self-directed research. Corporations would henceforth fund all programs.
“He essentially turned the NRC into a 1-800 number for companies,” Wakarchuk says.
Wakarchuk came to Ryerson after he left his government job in 2012. Since then, he says, the situation at the NRC has continued to deteriorate.
Arts and McCarthy, the two other former public sector scientists, worked at Environment Canada before coming to Ryerson in 2014 and 1997 respectively.
In late 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union that represents most federal scientists, released a report called The Big Chill. It showed that 90 per cent of its members thought they weren’t allowed to speak freely to the media and 86 per cent thought they’d be punished if they did so against government action.
In early November of last year, PIPSC announced that it would take an unprecedented stance against the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On Dec. 4, PIPSC released a proposal that would “obligate the government to negotiate scientific integrity policies,” according to a press release.
A representative from PIPSC wrote in an email that while it is against the policies that have been put in place by the government, they have no plans to campaign against the Conservative party because they’re a nonpartisan organization.
Wakarchuk, Arts and McCarthy staunchly support PIPSC’s decision. They say that change needs to happen and that the only issue is choosing the right time to speak out about it.
McCarthy, who witnessed what was happening from the outside, says she saw the effects of the new policy after only a year. In 2006, she says, her friends who were still with the government started complaining about the changes they noticed.
“I thought my friends were exaggerating, that they just didn’t like the change in government,” she says.
But in 2007, they stopped appearing at conferences and then in scientific journals.
“Publication was no longer a measure of our success,” Wakarchuk says.
On the rare occasions that scientists were published, they were barred from speaking to the media about their findings.
“There was a media relations office you had to go through, and everything had to be fed through there. That didn’t used to happen,” Arts says. “In the 1990s, I felt I could speak much more freely to the media.”
“I was absolutely free to talk — it didn’t even occur to any of us,” McCarthy says. They were encouraged to share their work and the science that was conducted in Canada.
There have also been widespread budget cuts to research. A representative from PIPSC said in an email that the government seems to be unfairly targeting those programs that are focused on the environment.
“In this context, it’s not unfair to ask where our national priorities currently lie on the public science front,” he says.
Arts says that because of the cuts, the government is able to do far less research, and what it’s doing is being redirected.
For instance, he says that researchers who would have otherwise focused on the Great Lakes or pulp and paper are now being used to research the tarsands because that’s a Conservative priority.
To some extent, he says, that’s acceptable. The government should be allowed to set its priorities.
But, he says, we are losing out on important research and because of that, Canada will fall behind other countries.