Alberta government’s proposed legislation threatens academic independence and research funding

Guest Contributor
May 1, 2024

By Ping Lam Ip and Andrea DeKeseredy

Ping Lam Ip and Andrea DeKeseredy both are PhD students in sociology at the University of Alberta. This op-ed first appeared here.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith recently tabled Bill 18, the Provincial Priorities Act in the provincial legislature. If passed into law, the bill will give the Alberta government power to vet any agreements between the federal government and post-secondary institutions, and other “provincial entities.”

The proposed legislation could have a tremendous impact on whether scholars in Alberta can secure federal research funding. The bill would prohibit provincial entities like municipalities, post-secondary institutions and health authorities from making deals with the federal government unless they obtain approval from the province.

In terms of federal funding for Alberta universities, the Tri-Council Agencies – Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Engineering Research Council (SSHRC) – are the main, non-partisan mechanism through which the government of Canada funds research across disciplines.

Through these sources, faculty and graduate students obtain funding to conduct research in diverse fields that contribute to health, science and engineering, and social sciences and humanities innovation and insight

Information on research funding is already publicly available

Universities across the country sign an agreement with the Tri-Agencies every five years on how to administer the funding.

Should the provincial government intervene in this process under Bill 18, some critics feel university research could be jeopardized. Numerous research projects could be at risk of losing access to grants and awards, which thousands of research assistants and students rely on to support themselves and their research. It could also limit opportunities for teaching and training.

Smith told CBC that her aim is to ensure “all people from all political perspectives are able to engage in a robust debate and have a robust research agenda.”

“If we did truly have balance in universities, then we would see that we would have just as many conservative commentators as we do liberal commentators,” she said.

It is not clear, however, what Smith means by “liberal” and “conservative,” leaving room for arbitrariness in the bill’s proposed vetting process.

Provincial Minister of Advanced Education, Rajan Sawhney, defended Bill 18, saying: “Albertans have a right to know exactly what these grants are and what they are funding.”

Sawhney said the bill will allow the Alberta government to make sure research getting funded aligns with provincial priorities.

What Smith and Sawhney do not seem to realize is that every Albertan – actually, every Canadian – already has access to all the information, which has been publicly available on Tri-Council websites for years.

SSHRC provides a full list of the peer-reviewers on its merit review committees. All of them are Canadian and international scholars who are experts in their own field.

It also provides an awards search engine where the public can find records of all research projects that have received funding since 1998.

Fact-checking the Alberta government’s claims

In order to fact check the concerns raised by Smith, we collected information on 35,828 research projects funded by SSHRC between the fiscal years of 2013-14 and 2022-23.

These projects were funded under one of the eight major, regular and most competitive programs offered to faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across Canada: Insight Development Grants, Insight Grants, Canada Graduate Scholarships doctoral and master’s programs, Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowships and Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships.

We wanted to know what disciplines receive the most funding – and whether SSHRC funding has been primarily going to social science disciplines that are often mischaracterized by conservatives as liberal or left-leaning.

Our findings (see graphic below) suggest the opposite of what Smith has alleged .

Percentage of federal funding through SSHRC research projects received per discipline from 2013-14 to 2022-23. Source: Author provided

On the federal level, psychology, education and fine arts received the largest share of the $2.1 billion paid out through the eight SSHRC programs in the last 10 fiscal years. Social justice and social inequality are not even the subject matter of these research areas.

Interestingly, management, business and administrative studies received more dollars from SSHRC than many social science disciplines seen by conservative commentators as left-leaning, such as sociology, geography, social work, and criminology.

A similar pattern can be found among the 2,535 research projects in Alberta we examined (see graphic below). Education, psychology and management, business and administrative studies received the largest share of funding. Business research in the province actually received more money than most social science subjects, a phenomenon that is most likely in line with Smith’s United Conservative Party (UCP).

SSHRC funding by discipline received by Alberta-based researchers from 2013-14 to 2022-23. Source: Author provided

No factual basis for Alberta government’s concerns

There is simply no factual basis to suggest that federal agencies favour liberal or leftist research. If anything, social science disciplines often considered leftist by the right-wing are actually underfunded.

Bill 18 will not maintain a balance of political viewpoints in academic research. Rather, it could strip post-secondary researchers of the already limited funding they have access to. And it could see certain research go unfunded if the provincial government arbitrarily decides that it does not conform to UCP’s ideology and agenda.

The Alberta government’s proposed legislation could undermine the academic independence of Canadian universities and risks their reputation for conducting high-quality research in the service of public interests across society – without political interference from government.


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