In the current issue of Nature is an editorial (likely to disappear behind a pay wall at some point) highly critical of Canadian science policy (H/T Don’t Leave Canada Behind). It focuses particularly on government policy, which is consistent with the various complaints I heard at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) late last year. While researchers in every country likely complain about a lack of funds, in Canada there is a dearth of institutions, processes, and organizations (new or mature) to help plan, implement and analyze science policy. These problems (well demonstrated by the examples of the Chalk River nuclear reactor and the lack of a national polar policy) have persisted regardless of the political stripe of the Prime Minister and the Parliament.
While the recommendation to the Canadian government that they appoint a single person accountable for science makes sense, I think Nature‘s chiding of Canadian researchers to become better organized and informed about science politics and policy is the message that needs more attention. This was one of the significant takeaways for me from CSPC.
While I don’t think the organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science is as effective in organizing science policy advocacy as Nature thinks it is, there are certainly plenty of organizations in the U.S. to connect scientists with policymakers and make their interests known. This is as true for resource appeals as it is for advising on policy, its just that the former gets a lot more attention than the latter.
This particular part of the editorial caught my attention:
“Another reason [for the apparent neglect of science] may be that so much of Canada’s wealth comes from natural resources, including timber and the oil sands, rather than from technical innovation. Perhaps this leads the government to see scientists as just another interest group, rather than as crucial contributors to the economy.”
The last sentence is particularly ironic, since the Government’s science minister made a point of emphasizing innovation is his remarks at CSPC. While it seemed clear at that event that there was a disconnect between the government’s interest in innovation and its lack of a coherent policy for science and technology, it didn’t seem that it was an issue of not seeing researchers as part of the solution.
Don’t Leave Canada Behind has more details on the likelihood of Nature‘s recommendations taking place. It’s way too easy to paint Prime Minister Steven Harper as a more polite George W. Bush with better diction. But his approach to science and technology is much closer to neglect than perceived broad-based opposition. The nature of Harper’s legislative plurality (yep, not a majority) – the source of his political power – has prompted him to govern from a defensive crouch, and it seems unlikely that he would undo some of his decisions regarding science and technology without some political gain. With disorganized research and innovation communities, I can’t see from where the political gain comes.