Musings on Reason and Passion; or, Science and Politics in Ottawa 1992

Caroline Andrew (University of Ottawa)

The title of this text was chosen in part to draw parallels with Joyce Wieland's quilt--"Reason over passion"--that was designed as a symbol of the Trudeau era in federal politics. I certainly do not want to get involved at the present time in an evaluation of Trudeau nor is my position really that current politics is "Passion over reason" although I do want to look at that possibility. The reason I want to think about Joyce Wieland's quilt is to evoke the sort of naïve joy captured in the quilt--the pleasure and almost triumph of seeing reason firmly installed in politics.

This text is designed as a mirror-image of the Wieland quilt--naïve grief about current politics. I want to keep the "naïve" in the sense of a global, non-nuanced, pure reaction to the political times of the moment--part of what I found so attractive in the Wieland quilt and which I want to keep in my reaction.

More prosaically I intend to look at the last federal budget and at the series of decisions it contained about the dismantling of federal institutions--the Economic Council, the Science Council, the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, the Law Reform Commission, the International Centre for Ocean Development--all totally eliminated--the Pay Research Bureau as well, the decision to downgrade the International Development Research Council, and the amalgamation of the Canada Council, the Social Science Research Council (SSHRC), and the International Cultural and Academic Relations Programmes from External Affairs and International Trade Canada.

I want to do two things--first look broadly at all these decisions and think about how they should be understood and then I want to look in greater detail at the proposed merger of the Canada Council, SSHRC, and the Academic Relations section of External Affairs and try to speculate about the likely consequences, in the medium term, of this amalgamation. I have chosen to look in greater detail at the SSHRC-Canada Council decision in part because I have been particularly involved in this area, through activity in the Social Science Federation of Canada and in the National Consortium of Scientific and Educational Societies, but also because there is no medium range for the Science Council or the Economic Council. SSHRC and the Canada Council will still exist so we can think of a medium term for them. The evaluation of the consequences of the amalgamation is clearly from my point of view, that is to say, the point of view of someone in the research community, from the university part of it, of someone working in the social sciences, of a feminist and of, I would maintain, a social progressive. What is likely to emerge from the new agency and how is it likely to effect these various and overlapping communities to which I, and a great many others, belong?

To simplify--and I did say at the beginning that I wanted to maintain the naïvety of the initial image of the quilt--it seems to me that there are two major interpretations possible of the federal government's decisions in the budget. These are: (1) that they are an important element in a right-wing anti-intellectual populist agenda or (2) that they are a clear illustration of a totally directionless, visionless, pragmatic interest politics. These could perhaps be called the "Passion over reason" hypothesis and the "Neither reason nor passion" hypothesis.

Clearly we can discount the arguments put forward by the government. They have already been discredited--the government talked of the importance of cutting the budget, but the amounts involved are paltry compared to all kinds of examples of federal spending. The federal government's other argument has been that these agencies were duplicating things being done in the universities. Certainly those of us from the universities know that this is totally untrue. University research, university structures, and systems of reward are not geared to producing large, team-organized, policy-relevant research, nor the sort of systematic collection of data over periods of time and pertaining to Canada-wide conditions. So, I would argue, we can easily dismiss the government's stated justifications.

I am also dismissing--although with somewhat greater regret--the interpretation that the government was deliberately and consciously stifling voices of opposition. The media did pick up on the government's irritation with the Economic Council's study of the costs of Quebec autonomy but this interpretation cannot really be maintained. The Economic Council and the Science Council were not opposition voices--neither was the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security--indeed they were often criticized by opposition voices as being too close to the government.

We have much better examples of the stifling of opposition in the revelations that have been coming out recently about the actions of the federal government--and the RCMP--in the 1960s and 1970s. And, indeed, what is becoming clear about the link between clandestinity and the stifling of opposition gives another reason for dismissing this interpretation of the recent budget decisions. Such a public, and open, decision is not the most effective way for governments to go about deciding to clamp down on opposition voices. That the result of these decisions is to have reduced the channels for the expression of opposition opinions is undoubtedly true. What I am dismissing is the interpretation that the government's motivation in eliminating the agencies was primarily to punish them for criticizing the government.

There is also a constitutional interpretation of the budget. Indeed, it would be unusual to have a political scientist comment on public affairs in Canada without having a constitutional interpretation. One version of this interpretation would have the federal government acting to hide agencies that are in areas of activity that are of interest to the provinces. According to this scenario, the SSHRC-Canada Council amalgamation is explained by a desire, not to downplay SSHRC, but to hide the Canada Council from being decentralized to the provinces. But this interpretation has certain internal contradictions because it also includes the argument that the federal government is not trying to use the budget to keep activities but rather to get rid of them to the provinces. People have used the constitutional angle to explain the federal government's decision, for instance, to close down the co-operative housing program. If social housing is to be decentralized to the provinces, let us at least ensure that there wil not be any budget for the federal government to have to turn over to the provinces. Therefore, this interpretation adds examples and perhaps new levels of analysis but in fact pulls us back to general questions of government motivation.

I can, therefore, come back to my original position that the federal budget decisions can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that these decisions come out of a strategy--one relatively well articulated--that aims at showing that the government is following policies coherent with right-wing, anti-intellectual, populism. The government is moving to recapture the hearts, and the votes, of those Canadians who are presently disaffected from the political elites and highly conscious of the power imbalance between themselves and the elites. This kind of political climate creates possibilities for manipulation and demagogy and the federal budget corresponds to this strategy.

The second interpretation focuses on the inability of the government to articulate any kind of coherent vision that links its discourse with its actions. According to this interpretation, the federal government is simply being pulled and pushed by a variety of pressures and reacting to the strongest of these pressures. The logic is that of the loudest voice or, perhaps even more, there is not logic at all.

So now to the task of drawing out these two major interpretations. The first one is the right-wing anti-intellectual populism--the government trying to capture the Reform Party agenda. This strategy hopes to convince Reform Party supporters that it might be preferable to vote Conservative rather than risk seeing the Reform Party support bring about a Conservative defeat and a Liberal, or worse still an NDP, victory.

The government's budget was therefore constructed to show that the federal cabinet understood the Reform Party agenda--that it too was determined to cut government fat and slash away at those parts of the bureaucracy most seen to providing useless services and not helping the "just plain folks back home." Indeed, to conceptualize this view it is useful to look at the National Citizen's Coalition document of a few years ago--we might think of the Coalition as being part of the organic intellectuals of the Reform party. The document was entitled "Tales from the Tax Trough" and it listed a whole series of useless government services including a hit list of what the NCC saw as particularly stupid research projects. Who was mentioned? SSHRC projects were the first on the list--followed by those of the Canada Council, the Canadian Institute on International Peace and Security, and IDRC. On the hit list were projects on the analysis of yard art, the fool in Western civilization, the wife's role in food shopping for the family, and the participation of women in trade unions in Argentina. Some of us, myself included, may react by thinking what interesting projects these are--and in fact how socially pertinent--but this is clearly not the intent of the pamphlet. The tone of the pamphlet and indeed the way it is likely to be read is of a totally profligate government flinging out dollars to finance absurd projects without any regard for, and even as an insult to, the hard-pressed taxpayers. In rereading this pamphlet one can easily conjure up the image of Don Mazankowski consulting it in preparing his budget. The "little people" speak and Big Don listens.

It is not quite such good theatre as when W. A. C. Bennett shot a flaming arrow into a raft full of the debts of British Columbia and, as the papers burned, declared the province debt-free. But it is the same politics. Simplifying and distorting so as to play into the world view of disaffected citizens--and doing so in a demagogic and populist fashion. It certainly fits with the anti-intellectual streak in right-wing populism. The vision evoked is of the people, through their elected representatives, giving orders to those pointy-headed intellectuals that have been having a free, and fat, ride on the backs of the hard-pressed, tax-paying people. So that is the first interpretation--co-ordinated, systematic, demagogic, but well thought out.

The second interpretation really stems from thinking that this first interpretation gives too much credit to the government. Right-wing populism does suggest that the government is capable of articulating a coherent position and of acting in a way that is consistent with that position. Those who think that the government is not capable of doing this are moved back to a position of arguing that the budget's so-called decisions are more an amalgamation of ad hoc situations and the results of the kind of interest politics that exists now in Ottawa. Peter Aucoin's characterization of Brian Mulroney's style of brokerage politics illustrates this well. As Aucoin states, "Mulroney's philosophy assumes that political leadership is about the accommodation of interests and not the interplay of ideas" (Canadian Journal of Political Science, 29 [1986], 17).

The weight of interests determines decisions and the list of agencies mentioned in the budget represents the end point of the pushes and shoves of various groups. One can imagine the discussion. "Oh yes--the granting agencies. Why not put NSERC, MRC, and SSHRC together? Oh no, problems with culture, the provinces are complaining and who cares about the humanities and social sciences--let's put the Canada Council and SSHRC together. What else can we cut? Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women?--maybe better not, we had some problems cutting the budget of the Women's Programme last year--maybe the Canadian Institute for Peace and Security--we should not get too much flack on that. Oh--somebody else has another choice--who is it?--what do we owe them?" Certainly no vision of a federal role in anything is visible--incoherence is the leit motif.

So how do we decide between these two points of view? One can think of elements of both--I am sure that the initial formulation of the SSHRC-Canada Council merger which suggested that SSHRC was being dumped into the Canada Council responded to the sort of criticism of SSHRC made by the National Citizen's Coalition, the Quebec caucus of the federal Conservatives, and others. Whether it was hiding SSHRC from the money cutters or dumping SSHRC it certainly looked like the government was trying to show that it could tell these people what to do. Not only could it cut federal spending but it could do so in a way to control those power-broker urban sophisticates so disliked by the people.

On the other hand, the directionless thesis has appeal. For instance, there would seem to be absolutely no logic in External Affairs giving over its Academic Relation's programs to the new, and, remember this, arms-length agency. What modern government, in an era of globalization and one in which cultural affairs are increasingly significant, would give up this tool? It seems almost inconceivable to think of this in terms of a rational-action model--visionless, directionless "ad hocery" can perhaps explain it best.

I suppose that I finally fall somewhere in the middle of the two interpretations--or with a mixture of them both. I feel there is enough of the right-wing populism that we must think of strategies to counteract it but I also do think that there is an element of directionlessness, or perhaps of push and shove politics that is important. However, in terms of the global consequences, the effects are the same. The government is losing capacity to reflect rationally on policy choices, it is publicly stating that organized reflection is irrelevant and that Canadian society does not need to nurture its capacity to systematically reflect on issues of social concern. In addition, as a society, we are putting ourselves in an itself increasingly vulnerable position in relation to other actors that have more information and a greater capacity to generate information through systematic reflection.

What is particularly distressing of course is that there is a certain receptivity in the public to the right-wing populist discourse of the government. That Brian Mulroney or Don Mazankowski are not sold on organized reflection is not in itself devastating or even at all surprising but that they are listened to when expressing this view is what is so particularly worrisome. And without presuming to present myself in any way as an expert on the media it is obviously crucial to relate this to the role played by the media and the fact that, here again, a good part of the media happily picked up the right-wing populism interpretation put forward by the federal government.

Many reasons can be suggested for this, in part that we intellectuals, plus others, oversold ourselves as socially central in the 1960s and the current reaction is a healthy counterbalance; in part that the growing democratic ethos brings with it a sense that everybody's opinion is on an equal footing and that people who speak as experts are to be distrusted; in part the simple fact that the budget eliminated or reduced so many different agencies and that the reaction was therefore fragmented and difficult to report. But whatever the reasons--and there are doubtless others I have not mentioned--there was, I thought, an unhealthy degree of acceptance of the government's rationalizations for its budget decisions.

It seems to me that we, the research community in Canada, have a responsibility to act and to try to influence public debate and public opinion by articulating clearly why support for research is important, indeed essential. We have a vital stake in the outcome--the extent to which systematic reflection is valued in our society--and it is up to us to play a role in this debate. The general public has got to better understand the role of research and therefore support for research and, in order to do so, it has got to know what we are doing. Therefore we must, and I would argue increasingly so, be willing to participate in the broad political debate. This call for action corresponds to my reading of the government's motives. To the extent that the budget reflected right-wing populism, it is important to articulate an alternative vision. If, on the other hand, it is push-and-shove politics that explains the budget, then it is important for us to be there, pushing and shoving.

I would also like to look at a second level of analysis of the federal budget decision--and examine more closely what are likely to be the consequences, at the level of internal direction and operation, of the merger of SSHRC, the Canada Council, and the Academic Relations programs of External Affairs. Now I know that we have all been reassured that existing programs will continue and that the amalgamation is a simple administrative putting-side-by-side of already-existing programs. Therefore nothing will change on a programatic level, we are being told, it is--one should not perhaps say business as usual--but peer-reviews, awards, and refusals as usual. But permit me to be somewhat doubtful of this interpretation. First of all, SSHRC's programs were very much in movement and in evolution themselves--and therefore it is not the question of the state of the program mix at the moment that is important but the direction of change. And to argue that the direction of change--the nature of the change, the speed of change, the intensity of change--will not be any different in this totally new agency that it would have been in SSHRC does not seems to me a very plausible argument. Just to remind you of the obvious the new agency will have a totally new Council--named by the government--and named in terms of the mandate of the new agency--support to the arts and to the humanities and social sciences.

Add to this one's knowledge of the complications of administrative re-organizations. Can anyone think of a re-organization that has not involved the participants in more energy and certainly in more time that they ever imagined? Recently, during a panel discussion on the Crisis in Scholarly Publishing in Canada, Louise Fleming of Ragweed Press, one of those wonderful people who manages despite all the problems of publishing in Canada to give voice to Canadian or, in her case, PEI points of view, formulated what could be called the internal chaos theory of the amalgamation. Her view is that the next three years will be taken up with internal organization and re-organization and that budgets will look adequate because no one will have the time to spend money, they will be too busy re-organizing themselves. Indeed, as time goes by from the budget presentation, another version of the chaos interpretation becomes plausible. This is the version that sees enormous energy being spent on planning for the merger and then finally for the merger not to occur. Would such a scenario be right-wing populism prevented or the illustration of interest politics?

A third element adds to my doubts about the view that we need not be worried about the programatic aspect of the amalgamation and that it is the general federal budgetary context. We have been given reassurances about the Council's budget for the next few years but it is also important to remember that the government described these decisions in terms of budget-cutting. This is particularly important in view of the fact that the new agency will be dealing with two communities--the arts and the humanities and social sciences--and that both communities are dramatically underfunded. We know about the ridiculously low success rates for SSHRC--and the dramatic consequences of these low success rates. The difficulty of getting a doctoral fellowship, for example, gives a very clear message to students about the value being placed by our society on the production of highly skilled people and even with those people determined to pursue their studies, the low success rates create major problems. And the doctoral scholarships are just one example--none of the programs of SSHRC have enough funds. However the same thing is true of the arts community--I am certainly not suggesting that the communities served by the Canada Council do not need more money--they do and their needs are dramatic.

I hope that the enumeration of these factors--the budgetary context, the time and energy costs of organization, and most importantly the fact that the crucial element is the evolution of programs and not their portrait at any one moment fixed in time--suggest that it is important to reflect on the likely internal consequences of the amalgamation of the Canada Council, SSHRC, and External Affairs Academic Relations programs.

Now, in order to develop my argument about the difficulties and dangers that lie before us--this formulation is chosen deliberately to underline that my chosen attitude is one of naïve grief--I should make clear my general position on current SSHRC programming. I am favourable to what I would call a balanced system--in which there are a variety of types of support and types of program orientation. I am in favour of this, not only because of the wide variety of types of researchers in our research community, but also because I, and therefore I extrapolate this to the whole community, want to be able to do a wide variety of types of research. I would like to have sensitive, useful support that facilitates the objectives of each of the various kinds of research and that does not force me to squeeze intent into programs that do not fit the intent but to find programs that help to move intent to reality.

If these generalities are being decoded as a defence of strategic grants, that is true but only as part of an overall system. The priority should go, as it now does, to scholar-generated research projects but there should be a full range of programs. One example that illustrates my position is the program set up jointly by National Health and Welfare and SSHRC to fund three research centres in the area of women and violence. Innovative features are that community involvement is to be a condition for the funding and that interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches are clearly favoured. Over forty projects submitted initial letters of intent and the second stage of proposal development included thirteen projects competing for the three centres. Now, why did so many people submit projects? I do not think the argument that people are so desperate for funding that they will try to squeeze their ideas into any funding shape is a plausible explanation--the money is too little. It is only $100,000 per year for five years--which clearly cannot and is not intended to cover the costs of research but simply the costs of community-university partnership. I would argue that the reason for the enthusiasm for the program is that it corresponds, not perfectly but much more than other existing programs, to ways of doing research that a lot of people want to do. It is a program relatively close to a great many feminist research agendas--doing participatory action research with community groups and doing research that is linked to social change, research that can be measured by policy changes or by new programs as well as by articles in scholarly journals, by books, and by presentations at the Learneds.

I will even incorporate into my support for the program the more cynical view that the enthusiasm for the program relates primarily to career advancement strategies. As universities are insisting more at looking at amounts of outside funding as indications of people's scholarly vitality getting money from SSHRC is increasingly valued. I do not think this position undermines my enthusiasm for the program. Legitimating feminist research within universities by demonstrations of respectability is an ongoing strategy and being able to do it through a program that runs counter to less feminist principles than other possibilities is at least an improvement.

I realize I have elaborated my example for so long that my main point has largely disappeared--the importance for the agency funding research in the humanities and social sciences to be able to develop a balanced program mix so that all of us--and even more importantly I would argue, each of us in the multiple kinds of research we each want to combine through our research careers--can be supported and not constrained by program guidelines.

I have, of course, chosen my example deliberately so as to give the most positive argument possible for strategic programs as a part of overall research support programs. It is essential, however, as part of this process that we define what we mean by strategic and with whom we wish to form partnerships. The fact that the federal government sometimes, or often, uses partnership as a code word to mean special deals for private companies should not push us to abandon the concept but rather to insist on our right to define our partners and our conditions for partnership.

Now where does this leave us in terms of the new agency? My fears are that, given the context of budgetary restraint and the already terribly low rates of success for funding, the most conservative elements of the academic community are going to exert strong pressure on the new agency to concentrate resources to a much higher degree than at present on discipline-based, scholar-generated research grants even more heavily weighted in terms of the track record of the scholar. Just to repeat my position I am not arguing against scholar-generated research projects, I am worried about a research support system in which they would dominate to the point of smothering all other forms of support. I am also not arguing that this move would be desired or even encouraged by the management of SSHRC--if such a move came about it would come from pressures from us, that is from the academic community, and indeed would be discouraged by SSHRC. But the pressures may well be so strong that it would be difficult to resist. Indeed, to a great extent we are SSHRC and our views inevitably influence the orientation of research support programs through the reviews we do, the role we play in committees, the views we express in conferences and in the media, and by a whole variety of contacts and points of pressure.

I think such a move would be regrettable. It would be restricting the breadth of support--and therefore, reducing support to those very kinds of research that are just now, by a very slow and uncertain process, gaining acceptance within the Canadian research community. Feminist research and, I would argue as well, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches are in the process of gaining a place but that place is not yet as assured as it should be. To risk greater marginalization of these forms of research by limiting the forms of support often particularly useful to them is, to my mind, a regressive step. And I would maintain that this is a legitimate fear--times are tough and the reaction of what one might somewhat simplistically call the "big boys" of our academic research community--the main-stream, discipline-based, heavily male, and heavily white group of researchers may well be to decide to push and to push hard for their own narrowly conceived interests--to be ungenerous in their reception to the widening of the voices in the academy. I hope this will not be true but I am worried and particularly so because I think that the amalgamating of SSHRC, the Canada Council, and the Academic relations section of External Affairs increases the vulnerability of the kind of balanced system of research support programs that I feel SSHRC was in the process of creating. It does so because of the climate of uncertainly, because of the problems of trying to deal simultaneously with the underfunding of the arts and the underfunding of research in the humanities and social sciences and because of the reaction to the feeling that our needs will be less central to the functioning of the new agency.

Having outlined the problem, what is the solution? Unfortunately, I do not see any easy or simple solution. I think that the best direction is, as I argued earlier, for a recognition of the importance of publicly arguing the case for systematic reflection on questions of importance to humanity--i.e., of support for research. To my mind it is only in working to solve the overall problem of funding that we can assure the place of feminist approaches to research and of multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to research. Their place will be all the more assured within the academy, and therefore the voices seen as legitimate will be increasingly multiple and various, to the degree to which we are able to argue our case to the government and, perhaps even more importantly, to the general public. Not to do so is to admit defeat and that is unacceptable. Naïve grief can only go so far--I prefer Reason, with Passion.

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