Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

Flag of Canada projected on to a curtain of water in Ottawa in 2012.

Jamie McCaffrey/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

Optimism at Canada’s annual science policy summit, but also doubts

OTTAWA—Scientists and policy experts gathered here last week for Canada’s premier science policy conference. It was the first since a new Liberal government took power, replacing a Conservative government that had drawn fierce complaints from many scientists as a result of its moves to muzzle government scientists, shut down science advisory mechanisms, and shuffle spending priorities. And although many participants expressed relief over the election results, they also voiced a list of research deficiencies and needs that seemed so long it took on almost liturgical tones.

Speakers decried decimated science policy advisory mechanisms and politicians’ efforts to disregard evidence and sanitize documents. And they highlighted other problems. Stagnant research budgets. Muzzled government researchers. Excessive bureaucratic control. National labs converted into toolboxes for industry. Incentive systems that reward commercialization over discovery. Scientific R&D tax credits, loan programs and targeted research initiatives that yielded little industrial benefit, or were primarily aimed at again bailing out aerospace giant Bombardier.

Odd, then, that Canada’s latest Nobel laureate, physicist Art McDonald, had a rosier view. Canadian science is actually quite robust, particularly basic research conducted within academia, he told ScienceInsider during an interview at the 7th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), held here from 25 to 27 November.

“We’re close to the top in the [Group of 7 industrial nations], in terms of citations per capita, in the academic sector,” said McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who will be awarded a share of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics on 10 December for discovering that neutrinos have a detectable mass. “In fact, if you look at the impact of citations, compared to world averages, in virtually all the academic areas, [Canada’s average is] greater than the world average.”

Not that McDonald thinks academic research in Canada is necessarily without its woes. Like virtually all delegates to the meeting, the former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory believes that former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 9 years and 271 days in office have left aspects of Canadian science lacking. He objected to policies that have precluded scientists at the nation’s federal intramural laboratories from conducting basic research, for example, and what he sees as a lack of adequate operating funds for new research facilities created under a multibillion dollar national infrastructure program.

McDonald also noted that, despite a government push to boost applied research in industry, “unfortunately, there’s very little R&D being done by Canadian companies. So the real question is how do you get Canadian companies to decide to do R&D here, or to incorporate innovation in their activities, value-added to the basic resources that we’re shipping all over the place.”

Other attendees presented the new Liberal government, led by the hip Justin Trudeau, with wish lists for action. Foremost were demands that it redress the widely-held beliefs that scientific evidence has become a non sequitur in government policy-making—and that scientists are shut out of providing input into decisions.

Harper, speakers noted, had scuttled the position of National Science Advisor and axed numerous science advisory bodies and advisors in line departments. Among the harshest critics of those moves was none other than the last man to hold the national science advisory position, chemist Art Carty. The moves were a function of “inbred behavior,” he said, and reversing them will “require a fundamental change in attitude, philosophy, and transparency within government, and by the bureaucracy.”

“That will not come easy,” predicted Carty, now executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Nanotechnology, because Harper’s policies served only to promote a bureaucratic environment in which “secrecy and control have become the norm.”

Trudeau’s Liberals have already vowed to recreate some manner of national science advisor, and lifted a much-protested prohibition against scientists talking to the media. But conference delegates advocated an array of other mechanisms to ensure that policy makers hear scientists and weigh evidence. Suggestions included re-establishing national scientific advisory panels and structures, as well as creating an agency similar to the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which crafts reports that inform legislators on issues such as energy and Internet security, and fund fellowships to train a new generation of science policy advisors. Others called for establishing a science secretariat within the Prime Minister’s Office, or a government-chartered science advisory body similar to the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, or the defunct Science Council of Canada, to provide independent recommendations on matters of science.

But economist Peter Phillips, of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, cautioned that the wave of euphoria engulfing Canada’s scientific community, and the flood of new advice, might be for naught. There’s no real evidence, he says, that Trudeau’s Liberals are actually committed to elevating science to some new part of the political atmosphere. Although the Liberals made a commitment to developing an “innovation agenda,” details have been altogether sparse, and he says nothing in Canadian history suggests governments of any political stripe have been particularly responsive to science.

“We’ve always muddled through,” Phillips says. “We haven’t made many catastrophic errors. We haven’t been particularly progressive in our use of science in government, or policy in government to drive science for socio-economic interests. In some cases, our successes have been in spite of government effort. In some cases, they’ve been aided and abetted by government policy. But innovation, science, and technology have not been high priorities over the past 50 years for any government. I suspect we’ll just continue to muddle through.”

Equally problematic is the notion of actually achieving some manner of consensus among scientists with regard to policy matters, Phillips adds, in part because science and evidence speak largely to probabilities rather than certainties. “It’s not clear how to manage the competing perspectives that come out of a very pluralistic community of scholars and practitioners who call themselves scientists.”

Ironically, achieving consensus within the scientific community, and within disciplines, lies at the core of another major issue which surfaced at the meeting. Gilles Patry, president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, called on the Liberals to launch a process to develop a roadmap that would guide future Canadian investment in both domestic and international “big science” projects. Those projects could be in disciplines including particle physics, astronomy, Arctic research, high-throughput computing, and health (from genomics to dementia). And panelists suggested drawing a roadmap will require Canadian scientists to think hard about their priorities, and their best opportunities to make a mark.