A “nonsensical” bill: Bill 18’s possible impact on university research

In an interview with The Gateway, political science professor Lisa Young discusses Bill 18 and its "worst-case scenario." PhD student Andrea Dekeseredy says that the bill's reasoning "is nonsensical, because it's not true."

The Government of Alberta has recently introduced Bill 18. If passed, provincial entities such as post-secondary institutions (PSI) will require prior approval from the provincial government on changes to existing and new agreements with the federal government. The first reading of Bill 18 — the Provincial Priorities Act, 2024 — passed in the legislature on April 10.

If fully passed, PSIs will require provincial government approval to receive federal funding. A written comment sent to The Gateway from the Ministry of Advanced Education said Bill 18 will ensure federal tax dollars are spent on Albertans’ priorities.

“We value our partnerships with PSIs and are committed to ensuring federal grants support the interests of Alberta,” the comment read.

University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) Vice-president (external) Chris Beasley said that the UASU will advocate for the exemption of PSIs from the bill.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars across Alberta tied up in thousands of agreements,” Beasley said. “We’re very concerned about the capacity and red tape that will pop-up if every single one of them needs to go through the provincial body as well.”

Premier’s assertion that federal government handles funding decisions is “factually incorrect”

According to Lisa Young, the federal government is “critically important,” as it is the major source of research funds in Canada. Young is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

The Government of Canada provides research grants through a tri-agency of funding councils — also called the tri-council. This includes the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

On April 12, Premier Danielle Smith went on CBC’s Power and Politics to discuss Bill 18. Smith said she’s “been given enough indication that the federal government uses its power through researchers to only fund certain types of opinions.” She added that at universities, “all people from all political perspectives [should be] able to engage in a robust debate and have a robust research agenda.”

Young said the assertion that the federal government is deciding what does or doesn’t get funded is “factually incorrect.” Young explained that governing councils made up of academics from across Canada govern CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC.

Additionally, Young said that “curiosity-driven research” receives the majority of research funding. Faculty members first present their area of research. Then, panels of faculty members and researchers in the relevant discipline decide who gets funding, Young explained.

Young cited the statement Minister of Advanced Education Rajan Sawhney made in the legislature on April 11. Sawhney said that “Albertans have a right to know” what the federal government is funding.

“Bill 18 will enable us to collect that information,” Sawhney added.

However, Young said that all of this information is in the public domain. She said granting agencies provide lists with information on funding decisions. The CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC each have a database for funding decisions.

“There’s no need for legislation if you want to know what is being funded at Alberta universities by federal granting agencies” Young said.

“Worst-case scenario” could bar PSIs from federal funding, PhD student says reason behind Bill 18 is “not true”

According to Young, universities across Canada sign agreements with granting agencies, including the tri-council. This allows universities to hold money on behalf of researchers.

Young said that the agreements between universities and the tri-council are standard across Canada. Because of this, Bill 18 would put universities in a “difficult situation” by asking for a different agreement.

“The granting councils would have to say no, because it would interfere with the independence of the research adjudication. The worst-case scenario [is] that Alberta universities wouldn’t be able to hold money on behalf of the tri-council,” Young explained. She said this would affect graduate students because many are paid in-part or entirely out of faculty members’ research grants.

Andrea Dekeseredy is a U of A PhD student in the department of sociology. She said that the past few years have been “very frustrating” for graduate students.

“There was the United Conservative Party (UCP) slashing funding to PSIs, which resulted in ongoing mass tuition increases. For graduate students, every time you increase our tuition, it’s actually a pay cut,” Dekeseredy said. “We’re exhausted from fighting with this government all the time.”

Dekeseredy and Ping Lam Ip, a PhD student in the department of sociology, wanted to see if projects that “the government would consider liberal research are receiving an unequal amount of funding.”

To do so, they looked at projects funded by the SSHRC between 2013-14 and 2022-23. From this data, Dekeseredy and Ip found that psychology is the “overwhelmingly dominant discipline.” The second-highest-funded discipline is education, and fine arts is the third, according to Dekeseredy.

“The main reason for implementing their bill is nonsensical, because it’s not true,” Dekeseredy said.

Official Opposition Critic for Advanced Education says there’s “no evidence that this bill is necessary”

Rhiannon Hoyle is a member of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Official Opposition Critic for Advanced Education. Hoyle said that Bill 18 is another “unprecedented barrier” to funding for PSIs.

“There is absolutely no evidence that this bill is necessary,” Hoyle said. “It’s quite insulting and harmful to our province.”

Hoyle cited a NDP press event that occurred on April 15. Andy Knight, a political science professor at the U of A, spoke about Bill 18 at the event. Knight said that the bill “will lead to an erosion of intellectual freedom” at Alberta PSIs.

Hoyle added that Bill 18 is both political and ideological interference from the government, and called it a “horrific situation.”

“It is very clear that neither the premier or the minister of advanced education is very clear on the independent, rigorous, peer-reviewed process for federal funding,” Hoyle said. “This government is playing politics and political games with students and our universities.”

Lily Polenchuk

Lily Polenchuk is the 2024-25 Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 Managing Editor, 2023-24 and 2022-23 News Editor, and 2022-23 Staff Reporter. She is in her second year, studying English and political science.

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