McLean’s on Canadian science.

On the McLean’s blog, Paul Wells asks whether the anecdotes of hard times for Canadian scientists reported in the Globe and Mail are indicative of broader problems. Specifically, he writes,

So here’s my problem: why has nobody in the research community been able to demonstrate that this is the case? With something more persuasive than anecdotes, I mean. The only problem with the Globe story is that it uses “researchers,” plural, in the headline, when in fact it’s just another anecdote about some guy who had a sweeter offer in Singapore than he did at home. Maybe the guy in the next lab is here in Canada because Singapore was chintzing him out and it all balances out in the end.

What I’m wondering is when Canada’s researchers, who depend in many cases on tax dollars for their work, are going to do some research about the distribution of those tax dollars. I asked a director of research at one of Canada’s most prominent institutions whether there’s any objective measure of research capacity vs. granting flow that would demonstrate the kind of mismatch today’s article hints at. He said he’s not aware of any. Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If our national science apparatus is overbuilt and underfuelled, rebalancing becomes crucial. But if the only people who think it is are researchers, and they can’t get their act together to prove their point, nobody will listen.

These are good questions. I tend to agree that we (Canadian scientists) need to be much more vocal in communicating our successes and our challenges to taxpayers.

For a start, I can point out the following items:

1) An analysis of the relative support for and productivity of Canadian researchers has been discussed in scientific publications, such as this Nature article.

2) The problem of a “brain drain” was one of the reasons the Canada Research Chair program, the CFI, and Genome Canada were developed. Despite some problems, this seems to have worked — quite a number of top rank researchers have relocated to Canada and many more have stayed. It follows that cutting support for some of these programs may have the reverse effect. In fact, just the perception of uncertaintly in terms of funding can make it unappealing for someone to move here and start a program. The journal Nature discussed the state of Canadian science here and here.

3) It is well recognized that Canadian scientists are not as well funded as American colleagues. Individual grants tend to be much smaller and there are fewer options for support. The big problem, which will affect everyone, is that the recent budget includes cuts to NSERC and CIHR. With this, it will be very difficult to pay for students and operating expenses. One can invest in infrastructure (e.g., with CFI), but that doesn’t pay for people to do actual studies.

4) The government is increasingly exerting an influence on what kinds of research are funded, with a specific focus on applied areas such as energy, fisheries, aquaculture, etc. This is at the expense of basic research.

5) There has been a shift to funding very large student scholarships ($50K/yr, which is twice the average starting grant for some panels in NSERC). Most of us find this completely inexplicable.