We can bemoan changes coming to the way scientific research will be funded, but shutting down Assisted Human Reproduction Canada was the right move.
If you believe that federal budgets are not just about the distribution of money, but are also public statements about what we care about (where the “we” refers to Canadians), then there is much in the 2012 federal budget to take issue with. But there are also budget decisions to be applauded. Below, I criticize the government’s rampant enthusiasm for P3 science (science funded through public-private partnerships) and then do an about-face to endorse the government’s decision to stop throwing good money after bad with the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency of Canada.
Those who agree that knowledge is “the best return on investment” will share my objections to the Harper government’s ongoing efforts to radically transform academic research in this country into an economic platform for business. This is not to say that Canadians should not be in the business of commercializing new ideas (clearly, we should). Rather, it is to say – loud and clear – that not all new ideas have commercial value, nor should they be expected to have commercial value. In other words, not everything that is valuable is (or belongs) in the market place. Sadly, the federal government’s unwavering commitment to P3 science obscures this basic truth.
With this budget, our government will invest an additional $67 million of our tax dollars in the National Research Council to refocus on “business-led, industry relevant research,” and an additional $12 million for the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence program. At the same time, it will reduce the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s budget by $15 million, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s budget by $15 million, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s budget by $7 million. Of note, the $37 million in savings this fiscal year will be repurposed and awarded back to the three federal funding agencies for “support of industry-academic research partnership initiatives.”
The Harper government’s unyielding enthusiasm for P3 science, grounded in a philosophy of trickle-down economics for science, which presumes that commercialized science benefits society by improving the economy, is sorely misguided. As James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, astutely notes, “with this budget, the government turns away from the kind of research that leads to new discoveries in favour of a narrow and short-term commercial agenda. By linking research only to business interests, the government will stifle rather than promote growth and scientific advancement.”
There is at least one budget cut that Canadians should applaud, however, and that is the decision to wind down Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC) – the agency responsible for “promoting compliance with and enforcing the Assisted Human Reproduction Act related to the prohibitions” as well as “implementing and administering a licensing framework for controlled activities.” On paper, this budget cut amounts to savings of $10.5 million per year. I say “on paper” because, although this is the parliamentary allocation, in most years actual spending has been between $5.3 and $5.7 million. I estimate that, to date, the government has spent nearly 30 million on AHRC, with little return on investment.
The Assisted Human Reproduction Act became law in 2004. This law established AHRC “to protect and promote the health and safety, and the human dignity and human rights, of Canadians and to foster the application of ethical principles.” AHRC was created in January 2006, the president of AHRC finally took office in February 2007, and the first AHRC board meeting was held in March 2007. I was a member of that board until March 2010.
Since 2007, AHRC has networked with scientists, clinicians, patients, and other users. It has established a number of working groups, developed educational products (a few brochures and a website), hosted various workshops and an international meeting on cross-border reproductive care, and implemented the regulation on “consent to use.”
More important than what has been done, however, is what has not been done. AHRC has not effectively promoted compliance with, and enforcement of, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act related to the prohibitions. In the eight years since the law came into effect, there has only been one RCMP investigation into alleged violations, despite numerous reports by investigative journalists on payments for eggs and for surrogacy. As well, AHRC has not implemented and administered a licensing and inspection program for controlled activities. While this particular failing is directly attributable to the government (and not AHRC), the fact is that AHRC did not do this work.
In brief, AHRC has managed to keep itself busy since 2007, spending nearly $5.7 million per year in the process. But it has never really done the job for which the original $10.5 million annual budget was allocated. In the midst of all of this, it is important to know that in December 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that parts of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act were unconstitutional. The net effect of this decision is that most of the compliance and enforcement responsibilities of AHRC were eliminated.
Given these facts, the only responsible decision available to the federal government was to close AHRC. What remains to be seen is whether the government will responsibly pursue the remaining federal functions having to do with compliance, enforcement, and outreach.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.