Doug Ford’s Attack on Research

Doug Ford campaigned on the claim that Ontario’s budget could easily be balanced by finding 4 percent “efficiencies” in every government department. It turns out, of course, that the voters were sold a pig in a poke, and the budget cuts have gone far beyond easily-found efficiencies and included deep and painful program cuts.

One of the areas where there have been such cuts is research. The cuts include: firing the Chief Scientist; terminating the basic income pilot program; withdrawing grants to think tanks such as the Mowat Institute and Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICP), leading to their closing; reducing funding for health research; defunding the Gambling Research Exchange Ontario; ceasing funding for stem cell research (Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine); and reducing funding for the Vector Institute in Artificial Intelligence from $30 million to $10 million. This list could go on and on, and likely it will. (The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Ford Tracker is a continuously updated list of the Ford Government’s decisions, including budget cuts, with links to media stories).

The Ontario Government doesn’t have a research ministry and a consolidated research budget as there are research programs in many departments. It would require considerable intellectual legwork to generate a consolidated research budget and then to determine the percentage that has been cut. My strong expectation is that it would be far more than the 4 percent baseline.

I don’t expect a provincial government to be a key player in basic research, as that is the role of the federal government and its national granting agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, and MRC). But I expect a provincial government to be involved in research that supports unique expertise within its borders or deals with public policy issues relevant to the province. Thus, the cuts to the Vector Institute, the focal point of Toronto’s internationally-acclaimed cluster of expertise in AI, and to the think-tanks with a provincial focus, such as the Mowat Institute or ICP, are surprising and distressing.

What is behind the government’s thinking? For unique expertise such as the Vector Institute, it may be the view that if the scientists at the Institute are doing such great work, they will receive funding from elsewhere, so the withdrawal of the province’s contribution won’t be missed. That’s an open question, and it could be that the Vector Institute doesn’t make up funding withdrawn by the provincial government and, as a result, curtails its ambitions. That, in turn, could induce its researchers to look for better support in other jurisdictions. Given the importance of AI in the technological revolution, that would be an enormous loss.

Public policy research is something different, and I think the Ford Government just doesn’t get it. Public policy research is evidence-based and uses leading-edge methodologies such as randomized controlled trials (as was the case for the basic income experiment). The results may contradict what John Kenneth Galbraith referred to as “conventional wisdom,” which is precisely what makes them crucially important. Finally, public policy research attempts to measure impacts of alternative policies on the entire polity. An example is cost-benefit analysis, which measures costs and benefits not only for an entire polity but for those beyond its borders. It calculates impacts by using money as a common denominator, using constructs such as the monetary value of a year of human life to evaluate health, environmental, and product safety policies.

Public policy for populist governments such as Ford’s is something much simpler. It is just a matter of finding out what “the base” wants or say they want, and then designing policies that give it to them. This is problematic in two ways. First, it entails governing in the name of only those groups in society that have voted and are likely to vote for the government. In contrast, cost-benefit analysis takes account of the interests of all: urban and rural residents, consumers and producers, and so on. Populist government weights the interests of those not in the base precisely at zero. It is immoral to say that some people’s well-being is of no value. This manner of governing turns politics into internecine warfare and discourages politicians from looking for broad policies that could benefit the entire polity.

The second problem with this approach is that the world is more complicated than populist politicians think, and policy that denies societal complexity may fail to deliver what the base say they want because of feedback and unintended consequences. Trade wars and Brexit are examples of simple-minded policies that have had enormous unintended consequences. Policy analysts predicted the consequences, but they have been ignored by the proponents of these policies.

The Ford Government’s devaluation of research hurts Ontarians and Ontario in numerous ways: discouraging the creativity and innovation that contribute to economic growth and social wellbeing, telling bright and creative people to go elsewhere because their contributions are not valued, and promoting ill-considered public policy. The costs of this approach will become apparent throughout the Ford Government’s mandate.

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