[Point de vue de Patrick Moreau] On the danger of confusing scientific research and activism

The author is a professor of literature in Montreal, editor-in-chief of the magazine Discussion and essayist. He especially published These words that think for us (Libero, 2017) e The prose of Alain Grandbois. Where to read and re-read Marco Polo’s travels (Note well, 2019).

Since last year, the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) has changed the criteria it uses to evaluate scholarship applications submitted by students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree. Until then, the criteria taken into consideration by the granting body were essentially criteria of excellence: academic training, grades obtained, awards and recognitions. Others have been added to these first criteria, aimed at assessing the value of the research project presented: originality and pertinence, methodology, etc. All these criteria therefore tended to evaluate the qualities of the researcher and of the research project for which he requested support from the FRQ.

However, since the spring of 2021, another set of criteria has been added to these elements, gathered under the heading “social mobilization”. However, these refer more to a political assessment of the various projects than to an assessment of their quality. These are in particular “capacity for commitment” and “consideration of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including equity, diversity and inclusion”.

In the scholarship application, applicants must therefore explain how their research project constitutes “citizen participation” and contributes in one way or another to this “social mobilization” that aims to achieve “sustainable development” or the “inclusion”.

These new criteria raise concerns that the FRQ may confuse scientific research with activism. Even the explanatory document that accompanies the enunciation of these new criteria seems to confirm this fear since, as examples of research projects that would satisfy them, it lists: “Effects of pollution on health”, “Empowerment Aboriginal women”, or “Affordable home and mental health”. Apart from these “social” or “ecological” arguments, which are perfectly laudable in themselves, we understand that it will obviously be more difficult for researchers studying astronomical phenomena, quantum physics or the history of philosophy to justify such a contribution to sustainable development.

Therefore, only one example of bibliographic research is provided in the aforementioned explanatory document; is “Literary life in Quebec”, a theme that would correspond to “Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities”. We also learn that we owe this somewhat far-fetched correspondence to the sole fact that the FRQ on its own initiative “broadened the scope” of this SDG 11 “by integrating intangible heritage into it, building on the UNESCO Convention on the Intangible Cultural Heritage” .

We are relieved to know that, thanks to this sleight of hand, it will still be possible, in Quebec, to support research on Quebec art, literature or history.

But what about those related to Aristotle’s philosophy, French literature? We can imagine without too much difficulty the kind of intellectual contortions we will force into some researchers who will be called upon to establish a link between their research object and one or other of the UN SDGs. Unless they meet the requirements of SDG 5 (Gender Inequalities) or 10 (Reduced Inequalities), they are all forced to redirect their research towards Aristotle’s homophobia or the sexism of the classics – topics relevant in themselves, except become a new type of moral obligation.

Moreover, these criteria concern not only the research projects for which financial support is requested, but the applicant himself, who must explain how he puts “his thought, his word and his action at the service of a collective cause”. . He is then required to demonstrate not only that he is capable of producing quality research, but also that he is ‘progressive’.

Again, the examples provided by the FRQ confirm a very oriented conception of what their leaders consider a commendable and legitimate “commitment”. It reads as follows: “You are part of a group or committee that aims to promote equity, diversity and inclusion”; “Produce podcasts to encourage healthy lifestyles”; or even “Participate in cleaning the levees”. The goal is clear: it is up to the candidates to show their credentials. Show that you share the ideals of contemporary “progressivism” to prevent an ugly climatoskeptic, an odious reactionary, or one of those “strong spirits” refractory to any political ideology, especially if it is imposed.

But is it really up to a granting body that has public funds to impose its ideological preferences? Above all, isn’t it intolerable that such a public body assumes the right to judge the private life and opinions of the people who ask for its help? Because the choice to participate in the activities of a charitable organization like that of committing oneself to any cause is precisely a matter of individual freedom.

The FRQ should only judge the research projects submitted to it, and in no case the “engagement” of the people who submit them. Their function is to select future researchers and not model citizens.

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