By James Turk
Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear, took an unprecedented step when he called on the president of one of Canada’s academic granting councils, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), to reconsider its funding for a controversial conference being held at York University next week. Some have expressed surprise at our subsequent call for his resignation. After all, Minister Goodyear says he was just acting to address some taxpayers’ concerns.
So why are so many Canadian academics so worried about the precedent being set by the minister? For starters, his seemingly innocent action disregards the tradition that allows universities to serve the public interest—that it is the role of universities in a democratic society to provide a space for critical examination of complex and controversial issues, whether they be peace in the Middle East, the best treatment of colon cancer, the effectiveness of crime prevention measures, or the causes of climate change. The public must be able to trust that ideas, findings, and advice coming from universities are based on scholarly work, not on pressure from outside interests.
Inevitably, some in society are offended when universities carry out their critical inquiries. This has led, over many years, to a tradition of university autonomy so academics don’t have to worry that powerful politicians or wealthy drug companies or influential religious leaders will dislike what they are doing and impose political, corporate, or religious restrictions on academic inquiry.
To ensure that scholarly standards—not political, religious, or corporate standards—guide how universities use public money, governments have established arms-length funding agencies, like SSHRC, to assess proposals for research and for academic conferences. Applications for financial support are reviewed by experts in the field who determine if the proposal has scholarly merit and should be funded. This system of peer-review is how the public can be assured that its money is well spent.
The notion that a minister can call the president of one of these granting agencies to prompt reconsideration of a peer-reviewed funding decision undermines the independence and integrity of that system.
This has never happened before, and for good reason. Every one of Minister Goodyear’s predecessors has respected the rules and decisions of peer-reviewers, and the need for the funding agencies like SSHRC to be truly “arms-length”. That tradition was broken with Minister Goodyear’s intervention. It was broken again when the president of SSHRC agreed to do what Minister Goodyear asked.
That is why we have reacted so strongly to try to ensure this never happens again. That is why we have called for Minister Goodyear’s resignation. We refuse to let Canada move in a direction that compromises the integrity of academic work. The public must be confident that it is independent and peer-reviewed scholarship, not partisan politics, that guides the work of universities.
James Turk is the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 academic staff at 121 colleges and universities across Canada.