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GREENINGS (Nov. 2017): Celebrate science not milestones

November 24th, 2017 · No Comments

Researchers shouldn’t have to spend their time asking for money

The federal government recently announced that it provided $1.6 million to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) to great fanfare. It is enough to keep it running through 2019. It seems like such a paltry amount considering we spent half a billion dollars to throw ourselves a Canada150 party. Really? $1.6 million is worthy of pats on the back, or the endless self-congratulatory tweets from Liberal members of Parliament. For a government that just appointed an engineer and astronaut as Governor General, this feels like a slap in the face for science.

Publicly-funded research helps inform everything from tap water standards to air quality targets.

If we want scientific research excellence, researchers need to know they can conduct long-term research, free from political interference, and not have to go grovelling for money in another year and a half. This is not being an ally to science, it’s throwing science a bone in hopes they get re-elected in 2019. True friends of science would have put in a long-term funding plan so these scientists know they can conduct 10 year experiments and spend more time doing research than writing funding proposals. Researchers spend far too much time asking for money and not enough time trawling through data that will benefit all of us in the long run.

I appreciate the need for accountability, but forcing efficiencies isn’t the best way to deal with the problem. Taxpayers demand value for money, but we need to have a longer term view, not just election cycles. If we want high impact research, we have to accept that duds are part of the package. It’s part of risk taking. We praise chief executive officers for taking gambles that sometimes pay off tenfold, yet aren’t willing to take the same risks for our research institutions.

What surprised me when talking to a relative was how little public appreciation there is for government-funded research. The “this doesn’t affect me” attitude is more pervasive than I thought. Publicly-funded research helps inform everything from tap water standards to air quality targets.

­High Arctic research might be the only thing saving lives in the Arctic region as climate change takes its toll. Good research absolutely affects us even if we don’t see it from our comfy kitchen tables in the city. Scientists, for their part, must make their work more accessible to the average layman. Sounding impressive in jargon speak has taken over the ability to write papers in plain English that everyone can understand. As a result, there’s a bigger and bigger gulf between academics and those who should be consuming the fruits of their labour. It also doesn’t help that papers are often difficult and expensive to access. When people can’t see the point of the work being done, no wonder there’s more money going towards throwing ourselves a giant birthday party than funding invaluable research.

Research that is publicly-funded should also be freely available to everyone. Thank goodness the Harper era gag orders on federal researchers have been lifted, but we still have a long way to go. We know climate change is real. We know we’re in a lot of trouble. Now we need to understand how to mitigate as much harm to ourselves as we can. This is particularly true for those who live in Northern regions of the country.

That’s why $1.6 million is an insultingly paltry sum. Let’s not give our government kudos for cutting back on a few steak dinners to fund scientific research that might save our skins. Instead, we need to demand that scientists get steady and stable funding for the work that ultimately benefits all of us.

Science isn’t political. Our government needs to make sure funding it isn’t either.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths.

 

READ MORE GREENINGS BY TERRI CHU:

Down to the data (Oct. 2017)

Reducing paper waste (Fall 2017)

Taking tolls to the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway (July 2017)

Lessons from Madrid (June 2017)

Thoughts on hitting the 400 benchmark (May 2017)

Solving the food waste problem (April 2017)

Kellie Leitch was right (March 2017)

Tags: Annex · Opinion