Toronto Star

Canada needs a brighter science policy


Finding a fan of Canada’s current science policy among those who care about such things would be a discovery worthy of Banting and Best. Few if any would contend that Ottawa’s approach is sound; rather, the debate in 2014 has been over what in the world would possess a government to pursue such a catastroph­ic course.

According to one school of thought, the answer is simple: The Conservati­ves are cavemen set on dragging Canada into a dark age in which ideology reigns unencumber­ed by evidence. Let’s call this the Caveman Theory.

The other, more moderate view holds that Prime Minister Stephen Harper et al. are not anti-science — that they at least understand the importance of research and developmen­t to their “jobs and growth” agenda — but are instead merely confused about how the enterprise works and about the role government must play to help it flourish. Let’s call this the Incompeten­ce Theory. This year, sadly, Ottawa gave critics ammunition for both attacks. Supporters of the Caveman Theory, for instance, can point to a pair of studies released this year that showed that, despite stinging articles from an august array of internatio­nal sources decrying the practice, the government continues to limit strictly what its scientists can say to the public.

Asurvey from Environics Research showed that 91 per cent of government scientists feel they cannot share their expertise with the media without facing censure from their bosses, which explains why reporters have had such difficulty extracting even the most basic informatio­n from science department­s over the past eight years. Worse still, a report from Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan not-for-profit organizati­on, found that this widespread muzzling was a direct consequenc­e of formal government policies, which failed to “safeguard against political interferen­ce, promote free speech or ensure reporters receive timely and accurate informatio­n.”

Muzzling, for Caveman Theory proponents, is consistent with the Conservati­ves’ apparent commitment to policies that keep us in the dark, even if it means they have to govern in the dark, too. After all, this is the government that immediatel­y upon gaining power eliminated the National Science Adviser; that scrapped the longform census, our best tool for gathering data about who we are and the challenges we face; that tried to shutter the world’s leading freshwater research centre at an enormous cost that would fully eclipse any potential savings; that has cut funding of atmospheri­c and climate science by some 30 per cent over the last eight years and that has otherwise gutted environmen­tal protection­s, even as it has pursued its agenda of aggressive resource extraction. (We stop there arbitraril­y. The Conservati­ves have shut down more than 200 scientific programs and facilities, many of them environmen­trelated, since taking office.)

Incompeten­ce Theory advocates, meanwhile, acknowledg­e that despite all that cutting, overall federal science funding has modestly increased over the past eight years (though, it should be noted, not quickly enough to keep up with inflation). They also grant, as the government constantly asserts, that we are now (although only technicall­y) seeing “record investment­s in science, technology and innovation.” The main problem, according to this group, is not the amount of investment, but how it’s allotted: namely, based on a misunderst­anding of how science, including innovation, works and of government’s role in the enterprise.

In an apparent attempt to spur lagging private-sector R&D investment, the government has essentiall­y transforme­d much of Canada’s research budget into a business subsidy. Again and again, the Conservati­ves have diverted resources from basic research — science for no immediate purpose other than knowledge-gathering — to private-public partnershi­ps aimed at immediate commercial gain.

Take the makeover of the National Research Council, Canada’s science agency, from a paragon of basic research into a toolbox for industry, focused on “large-scale research projects that are directed by and for Canadian business.” Or the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, a 2014 budget promise, which will provide $1.5 billion for university research over the next 10 years. It’s a significan­t investment fully undermined by a disastrous caveat: to access the funding, applicants will have to show that they have privatesec­tor co-funders. (Similar asterisks are all over Ottawa’s new science policy.)

The problem is that by abandoning basic research — science that no business would pay for — the government is scorching the very earth from which innovation grows. What electronic­s company would have had the forethough­t to fund Albert Einstein’s work in theoretica­l physics, which proved essential to the invention of the television? What speculator­s would have thought to invest in Kurt Goedel’s recondite math, without which there would be no computers? Only government can foster the robust science culture that will produce the serendipit­ous discoverie­s that fuel future innovation.

Whatever the government’s motives, whatever it understand­s or does not about how science works, it has over the past eight years devastated Canadian research in a way that will be hard to reverse. Private sector R&D continues to lag, but in our efforts to solve that problem we have seriously reduced our capacity for primary research, squanderin­g a long-held Canadian advantage.

Meanwhile, we have earned an internatio­nal reputation for muzzling scientists, for defunding research that is politicall­y inconvenie­nt and for perversely conflating scientific goals with business ones, thus dooming both. Our current funding system is less well placed than it was in 2006 to promote innovation and our science culture has been so eroded that we are unlikely to attract the top talent we need to compete in the knowledge economy.

Whether it was antiintell­ectualism, incompeten­ce or both that led us to this dark place, let this coming election year bring the beginning of a climb back into the light.

Whether out of ignorance or anti-intellectu­alism, the federal government continued to do serious damage to Canadian science in 2014

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Albert Einstein

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