Nature on the plight of Canadian science.

I love Canada. Yes, I know, we’re all human beings and national boundaries are mostly arbitrary, but I am proud of my country and its approach to its citizens and the world. I have lived in the United States and I have lived in England and I appreciated many things about both, but I am glad to be home again. I can think of no other place I would rather live.

I also love science. There are easier jobs, and higher paying ones, but there is nothing better in my mind than spending time pursuing whatever interests me, learning about how the world is and why it is that way, and sharing that knowledge — some age-old, some brand new, and some otherwise known only by me as its discoverer — with others.

The Canadian research system differs from those of some other nations in that it has always aimed to support as broad a range of scientists as possible. We traditionally did not have multi-million-dollar grants given to a select few, but rather much smaller grants distributed to a large percentage of researchers. It used to be that a good researcher — rather than a particular study — would be funded and could more or less pursue his or her interests, or could switch focus if some new and exciting topic emerged. Dollar for dollar, Canadian researchers have been incredibly productive, generating a competitive amount of knowledge with what must seem to colleagues in some other countries as pocket change.

Thus, you can imagine my dismay when I see what our current administration is doing to science in Canada. The conservative government, as noted in my previous post, have decided that we should have an elitist system in which they, rather than the scientific community, determine what a short list of priority subjects are. Not surprisingly, it’s all applied science focused in an Orwellian way on the environment and health. Only those who understand nothing about science could possibly think that the best way to find solutions to applied problems is to undermine basic research. Not to mention the reputation that this administration has when it comes to issues like environmental protection and socialized health care.

ScienceNow reported recently on some asinine new policies of the Conservatives toward research, but even before this latest development Nature pointed out the suffering of Canadian science under this government:

Science in retreat
Canada has been scientifically healthy.
Not so its government.

Comparisons of nations’ scientific outputs over the years have shown that Canada’s researchers have plenty to be proud of, consistently maintaining their country’s position among the world’s top ten. Alas, their government’s track record is dismal by comparison.

When the Canadian government announced earlier this year that it was closing the office of the national science adviser, few in the country’s science community were surprised. Science has long faced an uphill battle for recognition in Canada, but the slope became steeper when the Conservative government was elected in 2006.

Concerns can only be enhanced by the government’s manifest disregard for science. Since prime minister Stephen Harper came to power, his government has been sceptical of the science on climate change and has backed away from Canada’s Kyoto commitment. In January, it muzzled Environment Canada’s scientists, ordering them to route all media enquires through Ottawa to control the agency’s media message. Last week, the prime minister and members of the cabinet failed to attend a ceremony to honour the Canadian scientists who contributed to the international climate-change report that won a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

On the surface, funding for university-based research seems strong. The annual budgets for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council tripled and doubled, respectively, between 2000 and 2005. The government has also supported new science projects through government-created corporations such as Genome Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and has recruited and retained promising young scientists through the Canada Research Chairs programme.

But Genome Canada funds only half of the cost of a research project — scientists must seek the remaining cash from elsewhere. Last year, the CIHR was able to fund only 16% of the applications it received, and cut the budgets of successful applicants by a quarter, on average. And earlier this month, the country’s top scientists and university officials warned that they were short of funds to operate multimillion-dollar big-science projects such as the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.

What’s to be done? Canada has made good investments in its science infrastructure and its future research leaders. The present government might be dissolved after a vote of confidence next month, which could in itself lead to a change for the better. But in any circumstances, Canada’s leading scientists can be public advocates, pointing to the examples of other countries in urging the government of the day to boost their country into a position of leadership rather than reluctant follower.

Let me say this. I admit that I have been a beneficiary of some of the elitist components of the system, including graduate scholarships, a postdoctoral fellowship, and individual awards. I also have co-authored successful Genome Canada and Canada Foundation for Innovation grants. But this new focus on supporting few to the detriment of many is as un-Canadian as it is scientifically disastrous. It is my sincere hope that Canada’s researchers will refuse to accept this assault on science in our country.

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