Restor­ing sense to sci­ence pol­icy

Toronto Star - - WORLD -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.