The premature end of Ontario’s basic income pilot project is a serious breach of Canadian and international research ethics that harms Canada’s reputation on the world stage, say academics and activists from across the globe.
“Standards for the ethical conduct of social experiments involving humans have evolved significantly in recent years,” says University of Manitoba health economist Evelyn Forget in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod.
“Not only is the cancellation inconsistent with international best practices, but it violates your own Canadian policy for the ethical conduct of experiments involving humans,” warns Forget in the letter signed by more than 20 researchers and stakeholders participating in basic income initiatives around the world.
“Canada’s continuing leadership on balanced and humane economic policy has always mattered deeply to the international community,” the letter continues. “We ask you to reconsider. The world is watching.”
MacLeod pulled the plug on the three-year $150 million pilot project July 31, despite campaign assurances it would continue if Ford was elected. The initiative provided low-income individuals in three Ontario communities up to $17,000 a year and $24,000 for couples with no strings attached.
“People made decisions about their lives. They made decisions to go back to school, rent larger apartments, do all kinds of things on the basis of the promise they would receive this funding for three years,” she said.
MacLeod was not available for comment Tuesday. However, in a statement Aug. 31, the minister said the government was ending the project in a “compassionate way” by allowing payments to continue until March 31, and by helping individuals access welfare, if eligible.
But Forget, one of 40 academics and researchers hired by the previous government to evaluate Ontario’s experiment, is still shocked it has been cancelled. So are those working on basic income projects in Finland, the Netherlands, Scotland, India, Spain, Kenya and the United States, who signed Forget’s open letter.
In Canada, all federally-funded social science research involving human subjects must adhere to strict ethical standards outlined in a 218-page policy document, she said.
The policy mandates respect for human dignity through three core principles of “respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice,” she noted.
Provincial lawyers may have inserted “escape clauses” in contracts Ontario’s basic income participants signed, but they can’t override basic ethics, she said. “Words that lawyers add to contracts don’t excuse researchers from taking these concerns seriously.”
Sarath Davala, co-ordinator of the India Network for Basic Income, is appalled by Ontario’s behaviour.
“It is one thing to fight legally and one thing to fight politically, but we have to fight this morally and ethically,” he said, referring to a proposed class-action lawsuit and a judicial review of the cancellation. “It’s an ethical question.”
Davala, who has evaluated basic income projects in rural villages in India in 2011 and 2013, says he fears for Canada’s international reputation in the wake of the Ford government’s action.
“This is just not done,” the researcher said from Hyderabad, India. “What is the signal Canada is sending? The world looks to Canada and its ethical protocol on research.”
Although MacLeod has extended benefit payments until the end of March, Davala said participants are still being shortchanged and should receive the stipend for the promised three years.
“With morals, there is no bargaining,” he said. “In politics you can bargain, in business you can bargain, in wages you can bargain. But on the question of morals you have to take a stand. This is not fair to the poor people who have made their plans.”
Researcher Jurgen De Wispelaere, who has worked on Finland’s basic income experiment and has consulted on proposed projects in Barcelona, Scotland, Portugal and Corsica, said research ethics exist to protect human subjects from harm.
“The immediate stress and its impact on mental and physical health and well-being caused by the government … cutting off a secure income stream is very easy to grasp,” he said in an email.
“On top of that, we must include the harm of long-term opportunities and plans scuppered — several participants had registered to obtain a three-year degree and no longer have that option, while already having incurred costs in most cases,” said De Wispelaere, a political economy research fellow with the U.K.-based Independent Social Research Foundation.
Ontario got a lot of good press for the initiative and was being watched internationally as an example of political stakeholders and researchers collaborating in evidence-based policy-making, he said.
“Now it will go in the books as a leading case study of how politics pretends to be interested in social research but in reality bypasses the scientific community in its policy process,” he said. “Important lessons will be learned by others, but Ontario’s reputation is in tatters.”
Laure Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb