The Spending Culture of Science

Funding Redistribution Threatens Science Promoters

Graphic Sam Jones

When the Quebec government decided to reverse spending cuts to science publications, it proved two points: science funding is in a fragile state and the austerity project isn’t all that well thought out.

Days before the holidays, Josée Nadia Drouin, general director at the Agence Science Presse, received notice from Quebec’s economic development ministry to say the publication’s funding would be withdrawn.

ASP has received government support for decades and the money it gets from the government makes up 70 per cent of the non-profit’s budget. Drouin says she was surprised when she got the call but that it falls in the direction of the ministry’s increasingly economic-driven demands. ASP receives $123,000 a year.

“The fact that we’re in the ministry of economy gives a good idea that it has to be economically profitable,” she said.

“It’s not easy to find other sources for financing in the domain of cultural science,” Drouin said about the likelihood of thriving without government support. “Sponsors aren’t knocking on our door.”

She wasn’t alone. Publications BLD would also be losing funding, Le Devoir discovered, along with the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas), Science pour tous, the Conseil de développement du loisir scientifique and its regional chapters.

In fact, the money shared by these groups under the NovaScience programme cost the government a little over $1 million.

Scientific revolution

The news broke Friday. By Monday the issue was resolved.

Thanks to some small social media outrage spearheaded by Les Debrouillards, one of the magazines under Publications BLD, the minister of economic development, innovation and export trade, Jacques Daoust, decided to leave the funds where they were.

Les Debrouillards is a science magazine for nine- to 14-year-olds, its sister magazine Les Explorateurs covers nature for six- to nine-year olds, and Curium appeals to teenagers. Cutting subsidies to magazines that continue to mark the childhoods of many Quebecers would have been difficult to justify. “Despite the current difficult financial situation,” Daoust said in a press release, the ministry would continue to support the organizations.

According to the minister’s press attaché Melissa Turgeon, there was never a risk of losing funding, but rather redistributing the money to different projects.

“It was never a question of a cut at the base,” Turgeon said.

In fact, she says, the idea was just a proposition by the ministry’s “administration,” and was never accepted by the minister—despite her comment in Le Devoir days earlier.

Critics aren’t impressed. Yves Gingras, who is the Canada Research Chair in the History and Sociology of Science as well as a professor at UQAM, says it was business versus science when the government announced reorienting funds to entrepreneurial projects.

“This doesn’t mean there won’t be cuts, it just means they’ve been delayed,” he said of the ministry’s backtrack.

Gingras is particularly unsettled by the cuts that would have affected Acfas. The francophone association is the only one of its kind in Quebec and has promoted science and research since its founding in 1923. It would have lost 30 per cent of its funding—over $300,000.

“The government proposing to cut $300,000 from Acfas shows that it has no understanding of what is an organization that promotes science and university research,” said Gingras. “It’s a scandal.

“Cuts to science culture will discourage future generations from investing themselves in research,” Gingras continued. “The politics of research for the past five, six years don’t actually understand research.”

In an interview with Radio-Canada mid-December, Philippe Couillard said he was shocked by the proposal. Couillard is a neurologist, as well as the son of a prominent biologist—who was active in science clubs and science culture, according to Gingras.

“It was the catastrophe,” said Esther Gaudreault, director general of Acfas, about getting the first call. “Cutting a budget in the middle of a fiscal year—for the first of April—put Acfas in a precarious position.”

While Gaudreault isn’t accusing Couillard’s government of attacking science and research, it is working to pin down the province’s debt. She says the next budget will show where science falls on the government’s priority list.

All parties agree the current science funding predicament doesn’t compare to the Canadian one. Couillard’s government may just be blinded by their eagerness to tie down the deficit.

On a national level, Stephen Harper’s government is being accused of censoring scientists. Over 800 scientists signed a letter in October demanding funding and communication be restored in government departments. Funding sources are being merged and leadership through research chairs is being cut down to “super chairs,” says Gingras.

Meanwhile Drouin says she’s not getting too comfortable. The groups involved are still waiting for a meeting with the ministry.

Turgeon says publications will get to discuss the situation at regular consultations with the ministry in the near future. She also said she doesn’t know when they will be.

The ministry’s press release, from Dec. 14, 2014, said those talks would take place within days.

But maybe they changed their minds.