Restoring sense to science policy
During the Harper years, Canada’s reputation as a leader in science took quite a beating. Most famously, the muzzling of government researchers emerged as a national shame, decried by an august array of far-flung publications.
Upon taking office, Justin Trudeau moved quickly and rightly to free scientists to share their work. But undoing the damage of the past decade, and fixing Canada’s broken science strategy, will require much more than unmuzzling.
A long-awaited new report by an independent federal panel, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, takes stock of the wreckage and proposes a sensible route to restoration. The Trudeau government should waste no time in following its direction.
The panel paints a troubling picture. Federal investment has been in steady decline for a decade. In particular, the funding available for independent, basic science — the sort of funding, that is, that’s likely to attract the top talent we need to compete in the knowledge economy — has shrunk by about 35 per cent per researcher.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel found that over the same period our performance in terms of scientific awards, publications and citations stalled relative to our peers.
This is in large part the result of the previous government’s misguided overhaul of Canada’s science policy, which seemed to stem from a misunderstanding of how science and innovation work, and government’s role in both.
The Harper government essentially transformed much of Canada’s research budget into a business subsidy. Again and again, the Conservatives diverted resources from basic research — science for no immediate purpose other than furthering knowledge — to private-public partnerships aimed at immediate commercial gain.
For instance, they transformed the National Research Council, Canada’s science agency, from a paragon of basic research into a toolbox for industry. They also introduced the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, a significant investment in university research partially undermined by a typical Harper-era caveat: Applicants have to show that they have private-sector co-funders. Similar asterisks are all over Ottawa’s current science policy.
As critics have long pointed out, by abandoning basic research — science that no business would pay for — the government scorched the very earth from which innovation grows. When the late NRC scientist John Hopps was doing esoteric research on the effects of radio frequency heating on hypothermia, for instance, he never imagined it would lead to his invention of the pacemaker. Only government can foster the robust science culture that will produce the serendipitous discoveries that fuel innovation.
With this in mind, the panel gives official voice to a long-standing call of the science community: boost investment in basic research. In particular, it recommends that Ottawa increase the funding base for our four major granting agencies to $4.8 billion from $3.5 billion over the next four years.
It also calls for the establishment of an advisory council, which would help co-ordinate the efforts of granting agencies that currently too often work at cross-purposes.
There is some urgency here. By eroding our basic-science culture, Harper squandered a long-held Canadian advantage. As Britain, post-Brexit, and the U.S., post-sanity, each face research cuts, a window for reclaiming that advantage has opened.
The Trudeau government has made much of its commitment to science. But beyond the great unmuzzling, it has taken little action, preferring instead, as it so often does, to consult. More than a year into its first mandate, for instance, it still hasn’t fulfilled its campaign commitment to appoint a national science adviser. That’s a shame. Such a person would be perfectly placed to urge Trudeau to hurry up and act.