Canadian scientists stung by funding cuts have their own reasons to march this weekend

Even though scientists in 18 Canadian cities plan to block traffic, carry signs and behave like people demonstrating "against" something this Saturday, organizers of the March for Science are hesitant to call it a protest.

Saturday's March for Science might sound like a protest, but organizers are calling it a 'celebration'

Canada's scientists have their own reasons to take part in Saturday's March for Science but are hesitant to call it a political protest. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Even though scientists in 18 Canadian cities plan to block traffic, carry signs and behave like people demonstrating "against" something, organizers of Saturday's March for Science insist they won't be protesting. 

Instead, it's being called a "celebration of science"

Scientists are skittish about the "p" word — because "protest" suggests "politics," and that makes them nervous.

"I think it's an uncomfortable space for many scientists," said Dr. Andreas Laupacis, executive director at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

To march or not to march — it's a question scientists have been debating for months, ever since U.S. organizers began planning a demonstration to protest the Trump administration's cuts to government programs that affect science and research. 

'It's an uncomfortable space for many scientists,' says Dr. Andreas Laupacis of the political aspect of this weekend's march.

The idea caught on, and now, there are more than 400 marches planned around the world.

But all along, some have argued that it's a bad idea for scientists to be seen as activists because they risk being dismissed as just another special interest group. Others warned about the risk of alienating governments that provide the bulk of science funding.

There's a worry that if we're seen to be publicly embarrassing our government — is that potentially counterproductive.- Andreas Laupacis, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute

"There's a worry that if we're seen to be publicly embarrassing our government — is that potentially counterproductive?" said Laupacis.

But anyone reading the news in Canada lately might well ask why our scientists are not protesting in the "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" sense of the word. 

After all, just last week, a national report on the state of federal funding for fundamental research in Canada declared that the country's scientific enterprise is in serious decline. And last month's federal budget failed to provide any new money for the three federal science funding agencies.

Labs shutting down, research jobs lost

By early summer, nine out of every 10 health researchers who applied for research money from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) last fall will have received a rejection letter. 

Across Canada, labs are closing, graduate students are losing their research jobs and some senior scientists are facing the grim reality that they might have to abandon decades of inquiry, leaving important scientific questions unanswered because there's no way to pay for the research.

To have that sense that the next generation has been robbed of that opportunity, despite in many cases fabulous training, was a real eye-opener for us.- David Naylor, Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science

As chairman of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, Dr. David Naylor said it's been a sobering experience to hear the desperation among today's young scientists. He and his fellow panelists remember a different time.

"We had grown up in an era where if you wrote a good grant, you had a heck of a good chance of being given the wherewithal to get on with asking and answering a question that excited you," he said.

"And to have that sense that the next generation has been robbed of that opportunity, despite in many cases fabulous training, was a real eye-opener for us."

What went wrong?

Governments tying funding to politics

Naylor's report explains in detail how Canadian science spending has flatlined as governments have tied science funding to political priorities. That's tipped the balance toward commercialization and industry targets and away from basic science, or what Naylor calls "unfettered" research done by independent scientists working in universities and research centres.

Dr. David Naylor chaired an expert panel on looking into the state of federal funding of what's known as fundamental science. (CBC)

The result? After years of funding neglect, Canadian science is slipping compared to the rest of the world.

"Canada cannot excuse middling contributions with self-congratulatory memes that we punch above our weight on a population-adjusted basis," the report said, warning that the country has a "moral imperative" to work on the world's problems "to help address the serious challenges confronting our species as a whole."

Some Canadian scientists leaving research 

But instead of "unlocking the mysteries of nature," as the report suggests, Canada's scientists are increasingly locking up their labs.

UBC survey of more than 400 Canadian health scientists last summer revealed that 70 per cent were scaling back their research, and more than a third of scientists at various stages of their careers were considering leaving research altogether.

'Despite the Trudeau government's promise of sunnier ways for science, we are still waiting for those rays to break through the storm clouds.'- Lori Burrows, professor and senior scientist, McMaster University

​Naylor's panel was appointed by the federal science minister last June — a welcome sign for scientists who were breathing easier after years of muzzling and open hostility from the Conservative government under Stephen Harper. But lately, there's been a chill in the air. 

"Despite the Trudeau government's promise of sunnier ways for science, we are still waiting for those rays to break through the storm clouds," said Lori Burrows, professor and senior scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Things looked promising in the first Liberal budget, with new money for federal granting agencies. But there was zero new money for the agencies in last month's budget, creating what could be a critical funding crisis for some scientists.

Next budget will be too late

"It's not going to be good news this summer," said Jim Woodgett, director of research and senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto. Many scientists were disappointed by the budget, he said, and were only somewhat mollified by the government's assertion it was waiting for Naylor's recommendations.

"We're not going to see any change until the federal budget in 2018, and that's going to be too late for a number of labs, without a doubt," he said.

And there are no guarantees Ottawa will act on the report's call for more federal science funding. The panel recommended an increase of $1.3 billion over four years.

"We have to keep the government's feet to the fire and not just put [the report] on the shelf," Woodgett said.

Time to reconsider the 'p' word?

Does that mean it might soon be time for Canada's scientists to reconsider the "p" word?

Perhaps this weekend's celebration of science can be considered a warm-up for Canada's reclusive researchers, a kind of dry run in the political arena.

"I've got to be honest — I'm not sure how would I feel if someone gave me a placard," said Laupacis, who has publicly announced his intention to participate in the march.

"It's a space most of us generally have never been in. It's human nature when you're going somewhere where you've never been, you get reflective and a little nervous."

Most scientists are comfortable with the idea that they're marching to support American colleagues hit hard by U.S. President Donald Trump's cuts to programs and funding that affect science. 

And they're happy to raise a placard in support of evidence-based decision making. "Go science" is a chant that will unite most in the crowd.

It's a celebration, remember. Just don't call it politics. 


Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a health and science reporter, who previously spent more than 30 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs for CBC News.