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Are the conservatives really so bad for science?

May 4, 2011

What an election! Historic and crazy.

The Harper Conservatives got their majority, the NDP demolished the BQ to become not only the voice of Quebec but also the nation’s official opposition, and the once-mighty Liberal Party of Canada risks obsolescence. Oh, and the Green Party won its first ever seat by defeating an incumbent cabinet minister.

Basically, just like I called it.

But what does it all mean for science policy?

Well, it means the Conservatives will pass the budget that brought them down, likely without major changes. Thus, some new college and polytechnic research chairs, 10 additional CERCs, bonus money for Perimeter and the Institut National d’Optique, and money for the Brain Canada initiative. There will be more money for Genome Canada and increases in tricouncil funding, including indirect funds. I’m pleased that the R&D Review Panel will be allowed to table its report on government support for business R&D, with the government promising to take action on its recommendations.

So that’s the short term, which doesn’t look too bad. What about the long term?

Well, here things are a little more speculative, since the platform doesn’t describe much of a vision. Surely, there may be some lean times ahead – the government is vowing to cut spending to eliminate the deficit and – with a majority government – there’s no reason to doubt they’ll do so. I suspect the public service is in for some pretty big cuts, which means researchers at NRC and other government agencies will likely lose jobs. If previous budgets are any indication, we’ll continue to see an emphasis on programs to attract and encourage top-level talent in place of across-the-board increases for all. And I’m pretty certain the emphasis on results-oriented research will continue to grow.

Now, none of these guesses (and they really are guesses) seems to me terribly partisan or particular to the Conservatives, and I’m pretty sure I’d have made the same guesses if the Liberals had won the election (I wouldn’t have been able to even guess what would happen had the NDP won…).

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and worry among researchers about a hidden Conservative agenda.

Perhaps the most clearly articulated example is provided by David Ng on Discover magazine’s blog. A thought-provoking piece, Ng attempts a rational, scientific look at the evidence to suggest a Harper majority will be bad for science. While he makes some important and valid points, I think his overall conclusion is somewhat clouded by anti-Harper bias and an assumption that general trends are indicative of anti-science sentiment.

With all due respect to David, I’m going to go through his main points, since he does a good job of laying out what I think are the main worries many researchers share:

1. Harper’s government is not scientifically literate. I would agree with this – in fact, it’s one of my main bones with the Conservative government. But I would argue that this leads to sins of omission, rather than sins of comission. Science just doesn’t hit their radar often enough. Hopefully, this can be changed. I find the ad hominem attack on former Junior Science Minister Goodyear’s alleged creationism, frankly, tired and petty. Yeah, I get it, but I’ve seen no evidence that his personal religious beliefs have had any impact on policy.

2.  Harper’s government made climate change science an ideological issue. Well, no. Climate change science became an ideological issue been since long before Harper became PM. That’s because climate change science is a political issue. It’s a political issue for governments around the world. For Stephane Dion it was a political issue too, it’s just that most scientists supported his politics. Look, I think this is where scientists need to sharpen their game. It’s our job to do the science, and to do it right. The Harper government “supports the science” by publicly endorsing the basic tenets of climate change, but they don’t do anything about it. That’s politics. The Liberals chose not to do anything about it when they were in power. And then Dion campaigned on making climate change a central part of their economic platform and the public rejected them soundly. That’s politics. That’s not science. Yes, there are issues around cutting funding to PEARL and the government is likely to make investments in oil sands research as part of its climate and energy policies instead of renewable energy. But these sorts of decisions, never mind reshaping economic policy to account for climate change science, are economic and political decisions, not scientific ones.

3. The muzzling of federal scientists. I agree this is troublesome. And it would be nice to have these restrictions removed or loosened – which may occur under a majority government. But again, this doesn’t demonstrate anything particular about the Harper government’s feelings about science. The Harper minority governments were notorious for controlling all government messaging. Senior bureaucrats from government departments had to receive approval and talking points from the PMO before they could speak on record at public events. To my knowledge, the government didn’t prevent federal scientists from publishing, attending conferences, or discussing results with colleagues – all necessary to scientific progress. The “muzzling”, while clearly regretful and unnecessary, was strictly in dealing with media, and was entirely consistent with other federal departments.

4. The Harper government places too much emphasis on applied/commercial science. This may be true, and as I’ve pointed out here on numerous occasions, it is troubling. But this is a long-standing debate/discussion without clear answers: what is the right balance between basic and applied science funding? If basic research is fundamental to the creation of social and commercial innovation – which researchers have long argued – then what’s the answer when this innovation is found lacking? This tension will continue, whether under a Conservative, NDP, or (ahem) Liberal government. And there is no doubt that researchers will have very different ideas than business leaders or most politicians about where the right balance lies.

So do I think everything is just great? Am I celebrating the Conservative majority as a glorious victory for science? No, of course not. But I don’t think it makes any sense to create unnecessary and artifical ideological and political tension between researchers and the Conservatives. Or to assume that general government behaviour is indicative of particular attitudes towards science and research. In fact,  I think the main criticisms of the Harper government on science policy could just as easily be leveled at the other parties.

(as an aside, here’s my main criticism of the Harper governments’ disrespect for science, which I’ve made before: they have too often demonstrated a disregard for evidence in shaping policy in favour of epistemological populism – the stuff everyone just knows to be true. Furthermore, they’ve undermined the mechanisms to provide evidence, for instance through the elimination of the long-form census and the subsequent misrepresentation of Statistics Canada. This should be of much greater concern than some funding cuts here or there that are easy enough to restore. By eliminating the role of evidence in shaping policy, we do science a greater disservice. In my more optimistic moments, I hope this was due to the hyperpartisanship of minority governments, but we’ll see.)

In fact, I think there is every reason to be optimistic about research policy under a Conservative majority. But it will be up to scientists to make the case. Not to sit back and criticize every decision or tut-tut at this and that statement. But to engage with the government and provide it with the information to make good, informed decisions. Instead of complaining about how the government won’t come and talk to us in our language and engage us on our turf, maybe we should be more proactive. We need to engage government MPs and cabinet ministers, we need to be able and willing to discuss things like Returns on Investment (ROI) and political benefits. We need to move beyond “give us the money” to find win-win situations where everyone can benefit. And we certainly need to move beyond the old caricatures of ignorant, creationist Reform party MPs trying to set back the clock – not only are these caricatures inaccurate, they’re counterproductive.

Odds and sods

April 14, 2011

A few things floating around my election-addled brain:

  • Great work by my Québec counterparts from Agence Science-Presse and their colleagues on their effort Je Vote Pour la Science (JVPLS) on web,  print and radio. They’ve compiled a list of nine questions from readers/listeners dealing with three main areas of science: Energy and Environment, Consumer Safety/Health, and the Forest Sector. I look forward to responses from the parties.
  • Also seeking answers on science policy is a group of intrepid radio hosts at University of Ottawa’s CHUO 89.1 program Peer Review Radio. UofO graduate students and masters of understatement (their website declares: “science funding is a topic that often slides past the public interest”), they asked local candidates to answer questions from scientists. Here’s hoping they get some traction. You can follow their efforts on twitter with #scilxn41. Side note: the station and the candidates are in my riding – perhaps the highest concentration of science policy media coverage in any riding in the country…
  • if you want to hear a discussion of science policy and the now-defeated Conservative budget, or you just want to hear some very bad French, you can listen to me being interviewed by Je Vote Pour La Science on Montreal’s Radio Centre-Ville 102.3, taped just before the writs dropped. The audio is here, and I come on at the five minute mark. My first media experience and it’s in my rarely-used second language – believe me, I have a new appreciation for the leaders debating in their second languages the last two nights…
  • Speaking of which – nothing about research in the debates. Nada. But there were some really nice sets.
  • Finally, I’d encourage you to read blog posts by @NGhoussoub outlining the gong show that is the NSERC binning process for deciding Discovery Grants. For those who aren’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of how grant funds are allocated, they’re a bit of an eye-opener. And for those who are, it’s stunning what a gong show the bureaucratization of the process has become.

Research policy in party election platforms

April 11, 2011

A summary of research policy highlights from the party platforms, along with a few editorial comments:

Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservative plan (pdf here) is slightly more detailed than the others, as they’ve rolled their recently tabled budget into their platform. The platform document includes a subsection devoted to R&D, in which they trumpet their track record (e.g. “made substantial new investments in R&D through Canada’s granting councils”, which I guess is technically true if you ignore the funding cuts that preceded – and exceeded – said “investments”).

Promised initiatives include:

  • establish 30 Industrial Research Chairs at colleges and polytechnics.
  • establish 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs
  • “support research partnerships between college and university researchers and students, through Canada’s research granting  councils.” No details.
  • Support the “outstanding work” of the Institut National d’Optique and the “world-leading” Perimeter Institute. Presumably, other research centres are not world-leading or producing enough outstanding work to qualify for support. (I don’t mean to demean the work at these institutes, but it REALLY irks me when the government hand-selects recipients like this; it politicizes the research funding process and takes responsibility for research out of the hands of peer-review experts and gives it to politicians, for whom research excellence is presumably a secondary concern [/rant])
  • “leverage funding” for the Brain Canada initiative ($100-million from budget)
  • take action on recommendations of R&D review panel

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberals (pdf here) are pretty ambiguous about research policy,  though they do have one idea that may be innovative (though probably isn’t). Platform highlights include:

  • focus on three “champion sectors“: Clean resources, health and biosciences, and digital technologies. These sectors will be the focus across all areas of government, presumably including research funding and innovation programs. I’m a little ambivalent on this idea. On the one hand, I think it’s important to have some focus for allocating finite resources, but I fear this approach runs the same problem as the “picking winners” strategy I criticized the Conservatives for, above.
  • establish an “Innovation Gateway“, which would bring the panoply of boutique innovation programs under a single umbrella. While it seems a little premature (and presumptuous) to make this recommendation while the R&D Review Panel has yet to report, it’s an interesting (possibly innovative) suggestion. There are few details, but there’s potential in the creation of an arm’s-length agency to administer innovation programs. It would take the money away from uncoordinated pork-barreling by regional development agencies and place it in the hands of an evidence-based agency built on the CFI or Genome Canada model. Of course, it might also change nothing and simply layer on extra bureaucracy.
  • Like the Conservative platform, there is also a section specifically dedicated to R&D, with a laughably ambiguous promise to “increase investments” in research “as the country’s financial situation improves“.
  • A specific promise to invest $100-million over two years in a Canadian Brain Health Strategy, with research money flowing through “leading national research bodies”. This announcement mirrors the $100-million for brain research announced in the recent Conservative budget. (note: the budget tables in the Appendix show only $80-million for brain health – unsure about the discrepancy)
  • A promise to restore the long-form census. Clearly a political move, will be interesting to see if it comes up in the debates this week.

New Democratic Party

The NDP (platform pdf here) doesn’t seem to have much of a plan for research, with nary a mention in the platform. Weird. Here’s what’s there:

  • a promise to support research, development and commercialization of green technologies through incentives and the sale of “green bonds
  • restoration of the long-form census
  • That’s all…

Green Party

The Greens’ platform (pdf here) is described in detail in their Vision Green document, which includes their goals up to 2020. Of all platforms, it contains the most research-related content, and it is the most descriptive. Unlike the others, it also describes something akin to a “vision” for research in this country, which is predictably aligned with environmental and social justice politics. Oddly, this means that health research, a multi-billion dollar undertaking in this country and our largest research sector, is barely mentioned. Among their policy goals:

  • cut all funding to research with GMOs ($300-million over three years), institute a ban on any further research on genetic engineering and increase funding into organic food production
  • cut all funding for research at AECL ($450-million over three years)
  • link research spending in the natural and social sciences to water policy goals
  • support research into “possible harmful effects” of nanomaterials (umm, risk of confirmation bias?)
  • lots of animal rights promotion, including: ban experimental use of animals for cosmetics and military research, “strive for… ultimate replacement of animal use for all research, testing and educational purposes”, ban use of vertebrates for lethal dose toxicity studies
  • increase funding to tricouncil by 15% annually for four years, “emphasize” funding for environmental innovation, and invest in “undergraduate research fellowships” through the tricouncil
  • support CANARIE (no details)

Bloc Québecois

edit: an earlier edition based the Bloc positions on an executive summary of their platform. Here’s a more detailed look at what the Bloc offers (demands?):

  • extensive support for industrial R&D through investments and tax credits, including for research on electric cars, biofuel, aerospace, biopharma, forestry, agriculture
  • the support is stated, but not costed or described in detail
  • the Bloc maintains that Canada’s poor record on R&D investment is because Canada’s research and high tech firms are concentrated in Quebec. The rest of Canada has no interest in investing in R&D because it’s irrelevant to its economic base.

Fairy Dust Funding and the Election

March 25, 2011

Here we go again.

All signs point to the House of Commons finding the government in contempt of Parliament today, with a non-confidence vote launching a spring election.

So what can we expect?

Widespread pandering for votes, especially among seniors and ethnic communities, is already happening and is likely to intensify. Other, more segmented groups will also likely be targets of special attention, if the government’s budget is any indication. Tax breaks for piano lessons and volunteer firefighting, subsidies for home renovations. This is how political parties make friends and influence people in our age.

Unfortunately, research funding is increasingly subject to the same process: announcements of boutique programs to maximize political benefit. While the government has made significant investments in numerous research initiatives during its tenure, basic tricouncil funding has remained essentially flat. Even though the tricouncil is the primary mechanism by which research is funded in this country.

The fact is: tricouncil funding is unsexy. Despite their best (and often woefully misplaced) efforts, CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC suffer from the impression that they are impersonal bodies that base funding decisions on the opinions of faceless research peers.

This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, it is far more sexy for the Junior Minister of Science and Associated Things to stand up in the foyer of the Perimeter Institute and promise money to the part-time home of Stephen Hawking. It is way cooler to give money to Rick Hansen and his Foundation for Spinal Cord Research than to give it to CIHR which may – or may not! – allocate the funds in the same way. And whereas funding a new hockey rink in Quebec City is shameless vote-begging, promising $45-million to the Institut National d’Optique in the same region is simply supporting good science.

This is unfortunate because the tricouncil agencies, wayward as they can be, have an integrated and balanced approach to funding research. They take the long view and have built relationships (however rocky) with researchers. One-off announcements of major funding for specific research projects may be splashy, but they’re short-sighted. At best, we end up with a disjointed approach to research, with none of the “synergies” and “network effects” the government so desires, without the balanced approach that an effective research tradition requires. At worst, we end up with an increasing number of white elephants competing for a stagnant pool of ongoing research support. Researchers should demand a more coordinated vision for research support in this country, one based on long-established and essential practice of peer review.

Alas, this pick-and-choose approach to research funding is likely to worsen rather than improve during a campaign, where every utterance is squeezed for maximum political benefit. We will need to look past the millions of dollars sprinkled like fairy dust across the research spectrum and determine whether any of the parties offer anything like an integrated vision for research. Whether any of them demonstrate the respect for peer-review essential to a strong research tradition. And to determine whether any of them will listen to the community of researchers and invite them to participate in setting our country’s research agenda.

And it will be up to researchers to reach out to them. To tell them what’s important. To move beyond cries of “more, more!” and contribute meaningfully to a debate on issues that are central to Canadian research. To put our ideas in front of the political parties and find out where they stand.


Post-budget analysis

March 23, 2011

So, the 2011 federal budget was released yesterday.

And how did research fare?

Well, like so many other sectors it was sort of “more of the same”. Nothing to send one to the heavens or the barricades.

Just sort of… meh.

So, what was there? Well, there was an annual increase in tricouncil funding, though still not enough to offset this year’s scheduled cuts from the 2009 budget (combined with last year’s increase of $32M for this year, that’s a total of $69M back from the $87.2M scheduled to be cut). There’s also a small increase in funding for associated indirect costs. This is something researchers have been asking for, which suggests the government has been listening to concerns.

Genome Canada wasn’t forgotten this time, but CFI was (to be fair, CFI is still slated to receive $75M this year from Budget 2009).

There’s more money for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which I suspect will be more carefully gender balanced this time.

There’s the ambiguous promise of deficit reduction through ambiguous “spending reviews” which could easily cut millions from research, but there are no details provided.

There’s also money for colleges, money for collaborative research projects, clean technology, etc etc etc.

Like the rest of the budget, it’s a laundry list of unrelated, unimaginative, and uninspiring spending measures. Nothing to decry, really, but nothing approaching a vision for the future of research in Canada.

Of course, it doesn’t matter does it? The NDP has joined the Liberals and BQ by stating they won’t support the budget, and so the government will fall and we’re heading to an election.

So this should really be seen as the Conservative Party financial election platform. What does it say?

Well, I think it demonstrates that the Conservatives AREN’T enemies of research. Sure, they may lack vision and leadership, and they certainly place politics well ahead of evidence-based policy, but they haven’t slashed funding the way we’ve seen in other countries (like the UK), and signs are that they don’t mean to.

That isn’t to say there aren’t concerns, though. As Jim pointed out in response to yesterday’s post, one major concern of this government has been its tendency to cut out the middle man (ie tricouncils) and make direct funding decisions. We see this in this year’s announcements of funding for the Perimeter Institute and the Institut National d’Optique – both great institutes, without a doubt – and $100-million to a Canadian Brain Research Fund. Nearly $200-million dedicated to research, but without peer review or accountability built in. We saw this last year in funding for TRIUMF and the Rick Hansen Foundation for spinal cord research.

This kind of direct funding means decisions about research funding are no longer in the hands of experts who review and evaluate the science, but are rather in the hands of bureaucrats with little experience in research but lots of experience in maximizing political returns. This is entirely consistent with two urges in this government: the mistrust of experts and the need to centralize decision-making.

While the government has kept the dollars flowing towards research, they’ve been increasing their control over where it goes, which is a more pernicious trend.

Thankfully, we’ll soon have a chance to determine whether the other parties would approach research funding any differently. Indeed, we may even be able to convince them to do so.


2011 Federal Budget Highlights for Research Funding

March 22, 2011

Here are the relevant research bits from today’s budget. Analysis to follow.

  • $80M over three years for IRAP
  • $60M over three years to promote more students in digital economy disciplines
  • $37M/y for three federal research granting councils ($15M CIHR, $15M NSERC, $7M SSHRC)
  • $10M/y for Indirect Costs Program
  • $53.5M over five years for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs
  • $100M for a Canada Brain Research Fund
  • $65M for Genome Canada for a new human health research competition
  • $4M for a cyclotron at Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute to make medical isotopes
  • $35M over five years to NSERC to support excellence in climate and atmospheric research “at Canadian post-secondary institutions” (so nothing for CFCAS and PEARL?)
  • $50M over five years for Perimeter Institute
  • $5M/y for 30 new Industrial Research Chairs at colleges
  • $12M over five years through Idea to Innovation program
  • $40M over two years to Sustainable Development Technology Canada for clean tech projects
  • $45M over five years for operations of National Optics Institute
  • $12M over five years for creation of a Canada-India Research Centre of Excellence

$50-Million for Perimeter in Tuesday’s Budget

March 21, 2011

Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science-and-so-on, announced yesterday that Tuesday’s federal budget will include $50-million in new funding for Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. While details are scarce, it is assumed this will extend the $50-million in funding Perimeter received in the 2007 budget, which is set to expire next year.

While this is certainly great news for Perimeter and the quantum physics research community, it may be more significant for what the announcement doesn’t say. Traditionally, governments attempt to get the most political mileage out of their budgets by announcing spending measures one-at-a-time in the weeks leading up to the budget’s release. Already, political watchers have speculated that the dearth of spending announcements in recent weeks (apart from a seeming limitless supply of funds for Quebec snowmobile clubs) is signaling a budget that will be thin on spending announcements. Yesterday’s announcement may therefore signal that the Perimeter funding is the one (and only) politically significant R&D spending announcement in the budget.

Of course, there’s a glass-half-full interpretation as well. The Harper Government™ is nothing if not politically hyper-aware. If major cuts were coming to the R&D funding landscape, the Harper Government™ would have been laying the ground for weeks, perhaps by undermining the agencies or highlighting their inefficiencies. This would have been especially necessary given that they’ve stated repeatedly that they’re committed to an innovation society. It’s been absolutely quiet on that front, so maybe no news is good news.

There’s another, more nakedly political (and therefore more likely) interpretation. Given that there is widespread speculation that an election may be called as soon as Wednesday, the government is using any opportunity to spread the pork around ridings considered key battlegrounds. And it doesn’t get more key than Waterloo, the closest race in the country in the last election, won by the Conservatives by only 17 votes. Announcing $50-million for the riding can’t hurt if the writ drops later this week.

Anyway – this will certainly be an exciting week for Canadian science. The budget will be released tomorrow and I’ll be sure to summarize what it means for Canadian researchers. Later in the week, the government may fall, followed by an election call – in which case researchers will have to make sure R&D funding policy receives the attention it deserves.

Interesting times.

Submissions to R&D Review Panel Available

March 9, 2011

Just… wow.

Earlier this year, the R&D Review Panel issued a call for submissions from interested parties regarding government support for business- and industry-related R&D. Today the submission papers have been made public.

What a treasure trove of special pleading.

There are more than 250 submissions from industry, academia and government. I sympathize with Tom Jenkins and his fellow panelists who will have to sift through these not-even-thinly-veiled self-interested calls for support.

Clearly, I haven’t had the time (or the stomach) to go through them all, but here’s a couple quick highlights/observations:

  • There is a submission by the U15 – Canada’s Fifteen Leading Research Universities. I guess the short-lived and much-maligned “G5” group didn’t cut it, so they’ve let more in. Sorry Guelph and UVic! This is the first I’ve heard about the U15 – anyone else?
  • The U15 identifies the keys to improving innovation as more education and collaboration with universities. Quelle surprise!
  • That didn’t stop members of the U15 from presenting individual submissions, too. Double-dipping?
  • Major industry players have made submissions, including JD Irving, Pratt & Whitney, and Bombardier. These international industry leaders will no doubt be able to provide a global sense of how to nurture innovation and strengthen our economy. What are their suggestions? Well, Irving would like rules to be changed so it can get IRAP funding and access collaborative R&D grants without university collaboration. Pratt & Whitney would like foreign-controlled companies to qualify for greater SRED credits, including for R&D performed outside Canada (not clear how that boosts Canadian innovation…). And Bombardier reminds the panel that its industry has “unique characteristics” that require governments to make exceptional investments to address their R&D needs. Of course it does.

As Stephen Gordon, Université Laval economics professor and blogger/tweeter extraordinaire, tweeted just hours ago in response to an unrelated subject, “Business groups are pro-BUSINESS, not pro-MARKET. Government’s responsibility is to protect latter, not former.” In this case, the sentiment clearly extends to universities and government agencies, too. I hope (and expect) the Review Panel heeds his warning and reminder.

A call to the CIHR community

March 8, 2011

With the federal budget expected to be tabled in two weeks, concerns about research funding are mounting. Despite the government’s repeated claim that it has offered unprecedented support for R&D in this country, calls for deficit-cutting raise the spectre of the slashed research budgets of the Chretien/Martin era.

Read more…


February 23, 2011

A couple of things on my mind today:

Read more…

The Sputnik Moment

February 15, 2011

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

Barack Obama, State of the Union 2011

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama outlined the challenge and opportunity facing the US – a vision that places research and innovation at the centre of the effort to “[break] the back of this recession [and]  win the future”. Obama evokes the early 1960s, when the US poured money into space research after being surprised by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft, and suggests such an effort is necessary again for the US to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world”.

Read more…

Innovation vs. Invention

February 4, 2011

I wonder if we’ve got the whole thing wrong.

The fact is: universities don’t produce innovation. For that matter, neither does industrial R&D.

Read more…

The Globalization of Education

February 2, 2011

The Globe and Mail has launched a sophisticated series looking at the globalization of education and Canada’s ability to compete. Part of its monthly “Leading Thinkers” series, this month’s edition features video interviews with (among others) UBC president Stephen Toope, Yuen Pau Woo of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and Governor General (and former principal of McGill and president of Waterloo) David Johnston.

Read more…

Two interesting perspectives on the innovation economy

January 25, 2011

Today, two thought-provoking articles about how to build an innovation economy.

First, a Canadian perspective. Glen Hodgson, Senior VP and Chief Economist at the Conference Board of Canada, has written an article arguing that Canada is at a “tipping point” in our struggles with innovation. He argues. as others have, that Canadian industry’s lack of innovation stems from a lack of need. Our reliance on commodities, soft currency, and anti-competitive business practices led to the establishment of a branch-plant mentality and the generation of managers rather than entrepreneurs (one note: we do generate entrepreneurs, but too many of them head south to American innovation hubs).

Read more…

R&D Review Panel seeking submissions

January 18, 2011

The blue-ribbon panel appointed to review federal R&D support has released a consultation paper (.pdf here) and has launched an appeal for submissions from stakeholders.

The panel has been charged with evaluating the roughly $7-billion the federal government spends each year on innovation-targeted R&D. This excludes research in federal labs and basic research performed at universities. It includes the big expenses – SRED and IRAP, for instance. But it will also, one hopes, include a hard look at the myriad boutique programs that are more political than practical (the regional development agencies are notoriously political). Nassif at Piece of Mind has a (partial!) list of the programs involved. Surely some sort of coordination for program delivery and reduction in overlap is essential.

Read more…

Thursday Roundup

January 13, 2011

My method of blogging has changed considerably in the almost two years I’ve been doing this. Where I once used this blog to point out interesting and valuable articles or thoughts posted elsewhere on the web, I found myself doing so less and less often, instead using the blog to flesh out my own thoughts on issues like the long-form census debacle or on the directionlessness of the NRC. Because of this, I blogged less often and felt the posts had to carry more weight.

It occurred to me yesterday that this evolution was accidental and almost surely due to my use of Twitter. Now, instead of posting interesting articles here every day or two, I send out a quick “tweet” and that’s it. It took me a while to get on the twitter bandwagon but I’ve become a fan, finding it a useful tool to find and share interesting articles on the web (you can find me on twitter here). However, it has limitations – first, many people don’t bother with it. Second, while it allows me to point out interesting articles, it limits my ability to comment on them, which is the great fun of blogging. And finally, there is limited scope for the conversation that can occur in the comments section of the blog, which is a great reward.

So, today – a blast from the past. A few articles that I think are interesting. Yes, I’ve already tweeted them, but I haven’t had the opportunity to put a “Researcher Forum” spin on them. And, more importantly, I haven’t had the opportunity to hear what you think about them. So enough metablogging. Here it is, your Thursday roundup:

– Nassif at Piece of Mind continues his really stellar work with an “investigative report” (!) of how NSERC allocated its allotment from the last Federal Budget. NSERC received an increase of $13M, of which $8M wasn’t earmarked. It was assumed to be destined for the Discovery Grant (DG) program or other non-targeted programs. Alas, unconfirmed reports suggest that this money didn’t go to the general DG program, but to a variety of targeted programs, including the CERC program, Discovery and Innovation Frontiers program, and to Discovery Grant Accelerators. This last program is designed to encourage excellence among DG holders, but are largely allocated “in the areas that are directly related to the priorities of the federal government..”. This is not encouraging news – I think targeted research funding is important and has its place. But this report – if true – makes clear that it isn’t simply the government that prefers targeted funding to basic research support: it’s the funding agencies themselves.

– Beth at The Black Hole has a nice article about how research can get caught up in politics – in this case, the Republican Congressional Majority leader Eric Cantor asking the US public to scour the National Science Foundation’s database for wasteful research funding. A bunch of cranks with too much time on their hands deciding on the scientific merit of peer-approved research. Alas – politics is politics, and Rep. Cantor no doubt holds his head up high, knowing that fiscal probity and accountability are unassailable qualities. It’s a reminder that researchers of all stripes need to do a better job of explaining what we do and how and why it’s important. Outreach and Knowledge Transfer.

– University Affairs has a nice feature by John Lorinc describing the current challenges re. innovation in Canada. By and large a summary of where things stand in Canada, it offers a variety of viewpoints from various critics across the country. There are a few interesting tidbits, such as the idea that we’re perhaps too obsessed with “science-driven inventions” and not enough with innovations that improve productivity. It describes the advantages of the so-called “lean start-up”, a low-capital approach to start-up development. Ideal for the tech sector, it’s hard to see how you launch a manufacturing or biotech company without intensive capital, so this approach seems limited. Most disturbingly, however, is the section that suggests that our innovation problems are simply due to the fact that we’re Canadian and are therefore not innovative:

For many years, William Polushin has taught a core international business undergraduate course at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Each year Mr. Polushin (who’s also founding director of the Desautels program for international competitiveness, trade and innovation) polls his students about their attitudes towards entrepreneurship and innovation by asking whether they see themselves as the next Bill Gates – in other words, as individuals who will come up with an innovation that could be a game-changer. Year after year, the response rate is consistent: only about 10 percent say they see themselves in this kind of role. By comparison, at a recent conference on North American competitiveness in Mexico City, he asked the students in the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves running their own businesses in the future. “Well over half put up their hands,” he says.

This would be funny if it wasn’t also undermining its own point. In Mexico, innovation equals running your own company. In Canada, innovation means being the next Bill Gates. In a class of probably 200 students, if 20 of them believe that they will “come up with innovation that will be a game-changer”, that’s pretty darn good. Maybe we need to do a better job of defining innovation before getting too worked up about exactly what it is we’re failing at.

– The Edmonton Journal has an interview with innovation maven Peter Hackett, former VP Research at the NRC and former CEO of a now-defunct endowment fund called Alberta Ingenuity. I saw him speak at the CSPC last year, and there’s no doubting his energy and passion for innovation solutions. I think he makes two very good points:

  1. governments should stay out of venture capital. Once government got involved, VC investment became primarily concerned with the associated tax advantages instead of the companies involved. It complicated the game.
  2. we currently fund and support innovation by profitable, established companies, through IRAP, SRED, etc. instead of small high-growth companies. This is backwards.

This second point I can speak to personally – I have worked with numerous startups trying to access government support. The government and its associated agencies seem to have no idea how companies are born (stay tuned for a future blog post about organizations that support start-ups by offering $80 breakfasts with speakers from major accounting firms…).

– Finally, a warning from Nature (the magazine, not Mother…). Colin Macilwain points out that research funding has weathered the economic crisis relatively well in countries around the world. But stop the celebrations, he says, because funding for universities and teaching is being hit hard – especially so in Britain. And it is impossible to separate research from our universities: “the idea that research will prosper while teaching and learning decay is a dangerous fallacy”. He describes how the UK science establishment protected science only by “eviscerating public support for university teaching”. I’m not sure why – it may be another symptom of the growth of “epistemological populism“, which clearly has no need for universities – but cutting support for undergraduate education seems to be just fine with the public. Macilwain closes with a warning:

China and India… are building universities from the ground up, with a firm emphasis on student education as their bedrock of energy and ideas. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, these foundations are being demolished, and students drowned in debt, to keep researchers’ grants flowing. It can only end badly, and more in the scientific establishment should have the courage to say so.

NSERC also suffering from declining success rates

January 10, 2011

Last week, I discussed the historically low success rates for CIHR operating grants. Turns out this problem may be more widespread. Over at his blog Piece of Mind, professor and blogger Nassif Ghoussoub has outlined how NSERC Discovery Grant success rates have also declined significantly each of the last three years.

Nassif identifies three major issues. First, a shift by both CIHR and NSERC toward targeted funding. Second, increasing focus on partnerships with the private sector at the expense of basic funding. Third, decreased overall funding to the tricouncil.

His blog is a welcome addition to the discussion around tricouncil funding issues, and I look forward to reading more from Nassif in the future.

CIHR Operating Grants Raise Protest

January 6, 2011

Without much fanfare, nearly 1,800 people have signed a petition protesting the historically low success rates in the individual CIHR Operating Grants competition.

From the petition:

The percentage of successful applicants is about 15 % of the grants submitted. This means that very good grants are no longer fundable and that there is no guarantee that a grant rated excellent by the reviewers will be funded.

The petition cites research suggesting that the peer-review process is not precise enough to accurately award grants based on quality at such low approval rates.  Many applications rated “excellent” will not be funded, and those that are funded will be successful largely by chance. The signatories rightly lament this state of affairs and urge the government to rectify it.

The main reason this is happening, it seems to me, is that CIHR is increasingly “hands-on” in its management of research. There is a significant shift away from the “researcher-based” funding model – where we trust smart, productive people with good ideas to continue being smart, productive and full of good ideas. Instead, we’re moving toward a “research-based” funding model. Here, research is determined by government policy, and is directed through an increasing array of targeted funding programs. In place of individual creativity of our researchers and evaluation by learned peers, research areas and approaches are determined by bureaucrats in a doomed attempt to direct outcomes.

This isn’t simply about reduced funding, it’s about a change in how basic research is supported in Canada. Increasing the proportion of funding allocated through specific and targeted programs removes the creativity and unexpected discovery fundamental to basic research and risks turning creative academic research into a manager-dominated, risk-averse bureaucracy of incremental progress and outcome reports.

No doubt there are significant cuts coming in this spring’s budget; it is not yet clear whether research funding will be on the chopping block. It is important for researchers to make our voices heard for sustainable funding. But it’s also important to pay attention to these broader changes occurring and to make sure we protect the foundations of Canada’s basic research system.

Well, there’s your problem…

November 30, 2010

Why can’t we create innovative companies? What happens to all that basic research funding, proof-of-principle financing, and industrial research support?

It doesn’t work, says the government. We aren’t getting the return we expect on our investment, they say. And it’s the fault of business, which doesn’t appreciate our collective largesse in funding innovative activities, we’re told.

We write op-eds, we blog about it, and we announce important blue-ribbon panel reviews of the whole shebang.

We will figure out why business is failing to create innovative Canadian companies. Maybe it’s because our tax incentives are back-end loaded. Maybe the balance between seed-stage and early-stage public financing of companies isn’t quite right. Maybe (probably!) our Canadian CEOs are simply fat-cats content to cash their cheques and stock options while we remain forever proverbial hewers and drawers of wood and water, respectively.

But maybe not. Maybe we do create innovative companies. I know a lot of people who do, at least. And they struggle to find a market for their innovative products and services. Fair enough, that’s the free market, nothing the government can do about that.

Except when it can. And then doesn’t.

Let me introduce you to an indisputable Canadian innovation success story. Medicago is a Canadian company that produces vaccines in tobacco plants instead of using traditional egg-production techniques. This allows a much more rapid development and deployment of seasonal and pandemic vaccines. Their proprietary technology, currently in phase I and II clinical trials, was developed in Canada thanks in part to government funding – they’ve reportedly had an ongoing relationship with NRC since 2001, received almost $300,000 from NRC-IRAP two years ago (.pdf here) and another $300,000 from CIHR this year.  They’ve been awarded numerous Canadian business and technology awards. They have translated these investments and successes into millions of dollars in private sector investment and a public listing on the TSX. Not bad for a company based out of Quebec City.

So what’s wrong with this obvious success story?

Medicago made the news this week because the US Department of Defense is investing $21-million to build a 90,000 sq ft state-of-the art production facility in North Carolina. The facility will be able to produce 120-million pandemic vaccine doses annually or 40-million seasonal vaccine doses annually. In a news release, the US government recognizes the company’s ability to bolster domestic vaccine supply, respond more rapidly than traditional methods, and bring “hundreds of good paying jobs” to the region.

The 90,000 sq ft facility in North Carolina will dwarf the current estimated 15,000 sq ft dedicated to production in Quebec City, and will inevitably shift the company’s focus south.

The Canadian government’s response?

According to CBC news, Health Canada remains committed to egg-based vaccines:

“To date, there is no conclusive data to suggest that one vaccine production technique is safer or more effective than the other,” Health Canada said in a statement. “Further research and development will expand our knowledge around the use of this new technology.”


Are you kidding?

This is the problem.

Sorry: though delivery and administration of vaccines is a provincial responsibility, Health Canada was responsible for coordinating the response to the H1N1 pandemic and funded 60% of its cost. It is very nearly the ONLY CANADIAN CUSTOMER for this company. And they’re not really interested? They’re content to let the company head south, because “more research is needed”?

This is exactly what I was talking about in my last post. The Canadian government is conservative – not just politically, but in its support of innovation. We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this company over almost a decade, but we refuse to buy their products?

And we wonder why these companies head south?

We did a good job of supporting innovation here – up to the point where we had to step up and consume the products of our investment. And then?

Sorry, not interested.

Supporting innovation is more than throwing money at researchers. It’s a change in the way of thinking. The government should be ashamed that they’re letting this company leave due to a lack of business. You certainly can’t blame Medicago. Good for them.

The government should take notice and work to implement a procurement innovation policy that requires support for domestic innovative companies. Or else we’ll keep watching our best companies born here, grow up, and then leave.

Innovation – time to pull

November 4, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation lately. I’ve been talking to researchers about commercialization, talking to entrepreneurs about challenges they face in growing their companies, and have been reading a lot about what Canada must do to improve innovation.

Everyone’s got ideas about how to do it better. Unfortunately, not many of the ideas are very innovative.

Generally, these people seem to think we just need to do what we’re doing now, but more of it. Researchers are being told they need to file more patents, entrepreneurs want more early stage financing, and SMEs want more SRED tax credits.

A dog’s breakfast of funding programs already exist to address all of these areas, and they haven’t managed to fix Canada’s “innovation gap”. I’m skeptical that it is simply a question of inadequate funding for these programs.

The government seems to agree, which is why it has launched a review of all our commercial R&D programs. This represents an opportunity for a thorough rethink about how we support innovation in Canada. There is absolutely no doubt that effective funding programs are essential, and I’m sure the review panel will look at these extensively. I have many opinions on these, believe me. Today, though, I want to focus on the other end of the innovation chain.

It’s important to note that there’s only so much government can accomplish by tweaking its funding programs. Funding represents a “push” approach to innovation: here’s some money, go innovate. I think it’s equally important to look at “pull” mechanisms. For instance, Canada continues to fall in relative productivity compared to the United States. While the reasons are no doubt complex, our history of market protectionism is no doubt involved. Protectionism, especially in the natural resources sectors that constitute such a big part of our economy, means that businesses can remain profitable without needing to compete against the world’s best. Even in high tech, we protect our wireless service providers and high speed networks – resulting in needlessly high prices for consumers and SMEs, while shielding our large companies from direct competition. We protect our banks and financial services, we protect our aerospace and other strategic manufacturing industries for the short-term benefits of manufacturing jobs at the expense of manufacturing innovation.

This lack of global competition helps explain why Canadian companies invest less and less in R&D. It’s no accident that the two Canadian companies that compete most obviously on the international stage – RIM and Nortel – are at the top of Canadian R&D spenders. The government should pursue strategies that open Canadian markets to foreign competition while at the same time opening foreign markets for Canadian firms. Thus, you increase the competitive pressure on our companies while providing them competitive opportunities.

The government also fails at “pulling” innovation through its own procurement policies. Entrepreneurs will tell you that the two big challenges when starting a business are securing funding and building a customer base. Governments here focus on the former, but neglect the impact they can have on the latter. The federal government does have “buy Canadian” provisions for procurement (which, incidentally, is why many multinationals are sure to have satellite offices in Ottawa), but these are designed to support employment. Why not have “buy innovative” provisions? The government is way behind on this one – large companies have recognized that small innovative startups provide them access to new ideas and a flexibility that isn’t available in-house. As such, they are increasingly eager to work with startups and innovative SMEs. Government, on the other hand, is conservative in its approach, and makes it nearly impossible for these startups to compete for contracts, given the challenges of procurement processes. Government should make the procurement process more SME friendly, and be less conservative in its choice of providers. The government could actually put its money where its money went – support the creation of innovation and then be first in line to use it.

Innovation is complex, and if we really want to try to improve, we’ll need more than simply a splashy, politically valuable announcement of a big new approach or strategy. We’ll also need to get past the understandable self-interest of everyone involved and consider more than simply continuing or expanding this or that program. We need to look at how we reward risk-taking, we need to think about how we educate tomorrow’s potential innovators, and yes, we need to review our funding programs. I’ll have more to say about all these things in days to come.

Government Announces R&D Review

October 15, 2010

While I was generally positive about Budget 2009 and its support for Canadian R&D, I was skeptical (cynical, actually – it’s in my nature) about an abstract promise to perform a “comprehensive review of all federal support for R&D”. It promised to do so “in close consultation with business leaders from all sectors” and sought to “improve its contribution to innovation and economic opportunities for business”.

Yikes. No wonder I was cynical.

There were a lot of potential landmines in that announcement. Sure, we all agree that we’re doing an awful job of industrial R&D and translating our academic research into commercial success. But handing over the keys to our R&D policy to “business leaders from all sectors”?

Well, credit where credit is due. Yesterday, Gary Goodyear announced the details of the promised review, and he and his government should be applauded for its balance and focus.

The panel will conduct a comprehensive review “of all existing federal support for business R&D to see how this support could be enhanced to make sure federal investments are effective and delivering maximum results for Canadians [emphasis mine].”

So, basic research funding through the tricouncil will be untouched by the review. Which is good, since that isn’t where the problems in our innovation pipeline are to be found (there may well be all sorts of problems with basic research funding, but that’s a task for another panel…). It’s in effective knowledge transfer and business R&D where the problems seem to lie.

Government has instituted a huge number of projects to kickstart the business side of things. These include broad, general programs like SRED and IRAP as well as an enormous number of boutique programs that are sector-specific or aimed at individual regions. The tricouncils also have numerous commercialization and collaboration grants. There is no unity of purpose, however, and successes seem to be particular rather than general.

So it makes sense to review the state of affairs. To be honest, it will be a formidable challenge, given the tangle of individual programs (though some may overlap) run by different organizations without coordination.

But it also presents a formidable opportunity. A chance not just to determine what’s wrong, but to suggest how to make it right. Maybe we can get everyone on the same page, and create more  unity of vision and approach. Maybe the panel can look overseas at innovative societies and try to import some good ideas. Maybe we can get at the root of the problem once and for all.

And maybe we’ll find out that the answer isn’t more programs or better programs, but rather increased economic competition for Canadian firms who have maybe been protected from having to innovate for too long.

The expert panel – an admirable panel, it is –  is well placed to address these questions, and  has an attractive balance of academics and business representatives. They will have an opportunity to consult widely with their constituencies and bring fresh ideas to the table. This represents a real opportunity to address innovation shortcomings, and we should take notice and take part.

Indeed, the business community is wasting no time. A coalition of Canadian business leaders and high-profile academic administrators is working to frame the discussion. The blue-chip membership released a set of recommendations yesterday (the timing not coincidental) for how it wants the government to act. My sense is that their plan includes too much of “more of the same” recommendations – expanding SRED, expanding tax credits for innovation investment – rather than any really innovative ideas.. I haven’t had a chance to study it extensively, though, and there may well be good ideas in there. At least they’re jumping into the discussion – and they’ll be sure to get a healthy airing with the review panel: UofT president and innovation gadfly David Naylor is a member of both groups.

So we know the business community will be participating in the discussion. What about the research community? If increased knowledge transfer between academia and industry is a major factor for increasing innovation, then surely we have some ideas to contribute.

I know I have lots of ideas, and I’ll be sharing them here. It’s important for other academics to jump into the discussion and contribute meaningfully. Not to protect “our” share of the pie, but to try to work productively with other stakeholders to build something that benefits us all. It benefited nobody for us to retreat to our so-called “ivory towers” or be satisfied that they’re not going to touch our NSERC money and simply let “them” figure it out. Let’s engage meaningfully. For too long, business and academia have lobbied for policy that excludes the other, suspicious of each other’s motives. Here we can try to get on the same page and work together.

North American cooperation to fund innovation

September 27, 2010

Here’s a story I like. The Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery (BIRS) has announced $10-million in funding to facilitate “collaborative and cross-disciplinary research with a focus on the mathematical sciences and their vast array of applications…”. BIRS is an innovative think-tank that brings mathematicians from all over together to discuss theoretical and applied mathematics in sciences and industry. This money will cover operating costs for the station, which hosts more than 2,000 researchers a year for a variety of workshops.

But here’s the interesting part. The $10-million is coming from various governments. Not federal/provincial/municipal, as usual. No, this is coming from the three NAFTA governments – Canada, the US, and Mexico – as well as the Alberta government. NSERC (3.25M), Alberta Advanced Education and Technology ($3.4M), the US National Science Foundation ($3.68M), and the Mexican government ($250K), are all co-funding the project – the first time these countries have cooperated to fund research.

“BIRS represents the only serious joint educational and scientific research program in the NAFTA space”, a representative of Mexico’s national council on science is quoted in a news release.

More than fifteen years after NAFTA, this is the first time the three signatories have cooperated on a research project? Wow.

NAFTA was part of the great wave of economic globalization of the 1990s, which led to integration of regional and global markets. This occurred in parallel to cultural globalization and political globalization. The world has become more integrated, more cooperative, more open. Though globalization has its critics, these processes have also demonstrated numerous successes.

But this is the first time NAFTA countries have collaborated to fund research.

Given how much more connected we all are, how much smaller the world, perhaps its time to increase international cooperation in research. By cooperating, each country ensures participation for its researchers, builds multinational bridges for research efforts, and participates in a project greater than any of the three would fund alone. Perversely, multinational cooperation may help arrest the dreaded “brain drain”. Instead of countries competing for researchers with individual research budgets, countries collaborate and share in the rewards.

Sure, as with NAFTA, there will always be sticking points – areas of national interest, etc. But BIRS has shown that it can be achieved. And there’s no reason research should lag the multinational cooperation we see in other areas. There’s potentially much to be gained.

Weekly science policy roundup

September 23, 2010

Here it is, your weekly science policy roundup, in no particular order:

  • Canada has two universities in the THE list of the world’s top 50 schools for Engineering, released today: UofT comes in at a very respectable 13th and UBC at 38th. Conspicuously absent from the list are McGill and University of Waterloo, which were ranked 29th and 39th best engineering schools in the world respectively, by the rival QS rankings (UofT (14th) and UBC (30th) also made the QS top 50). The US has 21 of the top 50 spots, including all top five schools. California Institute of Technology finished first, slightly edging out MIT and Stanford.
  • A helpful note from a reader (thanks Nilima) reminded me that there is yet another set of world university rankings (is it time yet to publish a ranking of the rankings?). The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This list, initially compiled to find the global standing of Chinese universities, is now also part of the global rank-fest. Eight Canadian universities make top 200. Again, McMaster elbows its way into the G5, ranking ahead of both UofA and UdeM as the 88th ranked school in the world. By subject, ARWU places only UofT in the top 50 of Science or Engineering, with McGill and UBC both faring better in Life Sciences and Medicine.
  • An interesting note about the ARWU rankings: while American universities dominate all categories, there are at least a fair number of representatives in the top 50 from around the world. When ranked by social sciences, however, US universities take 43 of the top 50 spots, with only the UK (4), Canada (2), and Israel (in 46th spot) also represented. I think this is highly significant for a number of reasons. First, does this reflect the fact that other countries are competing internationally by strictly focusing on science and technology to the exclusion of the social sciences? Is this a losing strategy? Is American economic prominence and achievement not due, in no small measure, to the strength of its social science universities like Harvard, UChicago, and Stanford (the top three)? Further, is it possible strong social sciences programs at these universities strengthen the other subject areas – ie. is there a synergistic effect at universities where excellence is pursued in multiple disciplines? The very top schools in science and engineering still placed in the top ten in social sciences. The top-ranking national technical institutes still don’t manage to outrank the best comprehensive universities. Finally and generally, why are there so few international schools in the top tier of social sciences? (ps. UBC (30th) and McMaster (40th) were the two Canadian schools.)
  • More than a third of Canadian university grads between 25 and 29 years old are underemployed, according to data from The Economist, more than any country but Spain, and roughly ten percent more than the OECD average.
  • The UK is wringing its hands about imminent science cuts and the inevitable and dreaded ‘brain drain’ (note to the innovation types: can we innovate a new phrase to replace ‘brain drain’? “sci-guy bye-bye”? “the tech wreck”? anything?). Get ready for more and more of these stories from all over. With governments around the world suddenly realizing they have massive, persistent deficits, research funding is going to come under attack everywhere.
  • A really interesting look behind the scenes at how individual research funding decisions are made. The story is a common one – there are too many excellent research projects to fund. Good science and a strong track record are required to get you in the door, but aren’t sufficient to guarantee funding – far from it. As the chairman of the American Cancer Society says about deciding between equally worthy grants: “it’s subtle things”. Those things – including good ideas poorly explained, improperly prepared applications (often hair-splitting details), omission of essential data, and poor writing – are often an afterthought to researchers focused on exciting experimental details. These things are also all easily corrected by a dedicated grant writer or editor, often for a surprisingly low fee (ed. note: the author admits possible conflict of interest in this last statement).
  • On a personal note – this blog was featured, along with the excellent blog The Black Hole and the always informative Science Canada in this month’s University Affairs magazine, in a story about science policy blogging in Canada. It’s a little weird being the subject of a piece instead of the author…
  • Finally, for readers in Montreal: The undergraduate and graduate student societies at McGill have organized a “Science and Policy Exchange” on October 7, 1-7 pm. Speakers will include Richard Bruno (CEO of Beyond If, and highly involved in venture funding and tech transfer in Quebec), Marc Garneau (MP former president of Cdn Space Agency), Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party), and Philippe Couillard (former QC health minister). I’m really encouraged by the initiative of the student societies, and hope others across the country will follow their lead. You can get more information and register here.

Canada’s universities ranked (again)

September 16, 2010

For the second time in two weeks, Canada’s universities have been ranked against their global peers. And for the second time in two week, the results are decidedly mixed.

These rankings come courtesy of Times Higher Education (THE), a UK publication that, until this year, collaborated with QS, the publisher of last week’s list, in the production of a single set of rankings. This year, they have split and prepared lists with differing methodologies, which goes some distance to explaining the fairly significant differences between the results. The QS rankings are weighted heavily towards subjective measures such as reputation, whereas the THE rankings employ quantitative measures exclusively, including number of publications, research funding levels, and knowledge transfer. Together they provide an interesting snapshot of how Canadian universities compare to their counterparts around the world.

So how did we do? Here’s a summary and some off-the-top-of-my-head observations:

  • THE lists nine Canadian universities in the top 200, whereas QS ranked ten. There is some overlap between the lists, and those that didn’t make the THE list sat just outside the top 200 on the QS list (I assume the reverse is true, but THE doesn’t provide rankings below the top 200).
  • UofT comes out on top as the only Canadian university to break the top twenty in the THE rankings. Canadian schools on the THE list (and their rankings) are: UofT (17), UBC (30), McGill (35), McMaster (93), UofA (127), UVic (130), UdeM (138), Dalhousie (193), SFU (199).
  • McGill came out on top of the QS rankings. The Canadian schools in top 200 in the QS rankings are: McGill (19), UofT (29), UBC (44), UofA (78), Queen’s (132), UdeM (136), UWaterloo (145), McMaster (162), UWO (164), and UCalgary (165)
  • The only universities to make the top 200 in both lists are UofT, McGill, UBC, McMaster, UofAlberta, and UdeMontreal. These are the so-called G5 of Canadian research universities plus McMaster, which has a strengthened case to be added to the group.
  • Both lists are dominated by American universities. American universities comprise 72 of the top 200 spots on the THE list and 53 on the QS list. In both lists, the top 15 spots are taken by US and UK universities (with the sole exception of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich in 15th spot on the THE list).
  • Canada finished 5th in the THE rankings, behind US (72), UK (29), Germany (14), and Netherlands (10). As noted last year, we haven’t sacrificed quality for equality – while Germany and the Netherlands have more universities in the top 200, neither have any in the top 40 (Canada has three), and Netherlands have no universities in the top 100.
  • Interestingly, the relationship between education spending and world-class universities is unclear. While the US spends far more than any other country on post-secondary education (3% of GDP, nearly double the OECD average of 1.5%), and Canada is the second-highest spender (2.5%), most of the top performing countries spend the OECD average or less. Other top performing countries such as Britain and Germany spend significantly less than the average.
  • The differences between the two lists are illustrative, given that reputation plays such a large role in the QS list and a much reduced role in the THE list. If we assume that the THE list is a more accurate reflection of actual research and teaching quality, then it suggests some universities are being underestimated whereas others have a reputation that exceeds their accomplishments. This has very real consequences, universities that suffer from a poor image will have more difficulty recruiting top-notch students and faculty and research funding, whereas schools whose results do not meet their reputation may see that reputation begin to slip. Examples of the former would include McMaster (top 100 in THE, but ranked 162 in QS) and UVic (130 in THE, but only ranked 241 in QS). Queen’s (132 in QS), for example, enjoys a very strong reputation internationally, but didn’t crack the top 200 in the THE rankings. Even McGill may take notice – it has enjoyed the top Canadian spot and top 20 billing in the QS list for the last four years, but trails both UofT and UBC in the THE rankings. Significantly, when each is ranked by specific disciplines, UofT and UBC rank higher in each discipline than their overall ranking whereas for McGill, the opposite is true. Arguably, this suggests that the reputation enjoyed by UofT and UBC may be more closely related to actual research rather than historical reputation.  (n.b., it is equally possible that the THE methodology is flawed and unable to capture aspects of excellence that are qualitatively appreciated and reflected in the QS rankings…)

Ok, I think that’s enough for today. I could go on and on with these sorts of things. There is a great value in these sorts of exercises, insofar as they provide fodder for discussion. THE will be releasing discipline-specific rankings in the weeks ahead, which I think are potentially more useful. There will be plenty more to discuss.

Weekly Roundup

September 9, 2010

The Globe and Mail reports that a Statistics Canada study confirms that a voluntary survey will introduce significant errors when compared with a mandatory survey. The study models a voluntary survey by tabulating 1996 long-form surveys submitted early – presumably before the long arm of the law reached out and forced scofflaws to submit them. The study showed that the numbers of renters and visible minorities would have been miscounted in a voluntary survey. While many argue that this confirms there are subgroups who will be less likely to fill out a voluntary survey, it may also suggest that renters and visible minorities are procrastinators who only fill out surveys at the last minute, mandatory or not. Either way, expect the government to announce the addition of questions about renting and visible minorities to the still-mandatory short form census: problem solved!


Canada “slipped” in this year’s Times QS World University Rankings, from 11 to 10 spots in the top 200 (SFU slipped 0ut of the top 200, maybe because it started competing in the NCAA). Canada did well again, ranking behind only US (53), UK (29), Germany (12), Netherlands (11) and tying Japan (10) for most universities represented in the top 200. McGill was the only Canadian school in the top 20, with UofT, UBC, and UofA also making the top 60.

Good for us. I spent a bit of time last year looking at the meaning of these rankings, and concluded we were doing really well. This year’s a bit different. First, we’ve slipped from 3rd overall to 5th. Also, we had more in the top 40 than all countries save the US and UK – now we have two in the top 40, whereas Australia has three, France, Hong Kong, Japan, and Switzerland also have two. But these are in large part due to small changes in ranking position – UBC missed the top 40 by only two positions, after all.

How do we stack up when we account for variations in size? Using the top 200 as a general list of the world’s best universities, which countries work above their average? The small countries of Western Europe come out on top when the number of top universities are compared to either population or GDP. There is one university on the list for roughly every 2-million inhabitants in Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK – the Swiss lead the group with one for every 1.1-million people. New Zealand (1 per 1.5M), Israel (2.5M) and Australia (2.8M) also outperform Canada, which comes in tenth with one university in the top 200 for every 3.4-million inhabitants. The US (5.8M), Germany (6.8M), Japan (12M) and France (13M) are well down the list. The numbers are more or less the same when compared with GDP.

Last year, there was a sense that while we may not be producing any truly “elite” universities – none in the top ten in the world, for instance, only one in the top twenty – we were at least producing many very good ones. Relative to our size, however, we are producing fewer than others. This may be especially worrisome given that we have the second highest rate of spending on education relative to GDP in the OECD, behind only the US.


Finally, a blue-ribbon panel of experts convened by CIHR has unanimously recommended against funding national clinical trials into so-called liberation therapy for MS, a recommendation our health minister quickly and fully accepted. The defensiveness detectable in Dr. Alain Beaudet’s official statement (“There is an overwhelming lack of scientific evidence on the safety and efficacy of the procedure, or even that there is any link between blocked veins and MS”, he said) suggests the science policy makers may be getting a little tired of the relentless pressure of patients’ groups and the media, and understandably so. This difficult issue is a perfect illustration of the difference I discussed earlier between policy for science and science for policy. Not funding expensive clinical trials for early-stage treatments because the science isn’t there? Good policy for science. Telling desperate patients that they cannot access an experimental treatment, even at their own risk and cost because the science isn’t there? Not good science for policy. I’ve written about this before, and I understand there are many of you who disagree with me. My feeling is that while science and evidence should play an essential role in shaping public policy, they must still be balanced by other concerns. I think the CIHR’s recommendations are prudent when it comes to allocating research funds, but Canadian MS patients have a right to seek the treatments of their choice, even experimental ones, and they are doing so outside the country in increasing numbers. So where’s the policy response to that?

The year ahead in Canadian science policy

August 31, 2010

Though the heat and humidity remains at mid-summer levels here in Ottawa, my summer’s over and I’m back in the blogging saddle, ready to tackle exciting science policy developments in the year ahead. Here, boldly (and gimmickly)  are my three predictions for the coming year:

1. The Harper government will continue its love-hate relationship with science policy. We will continue to see very public announcements of impressive sums of money for research projects, each trumpeted as definitive and final proof that this government loves and supports science and research. At the same time, the government will continue to undermine principles of science-based policy development.

See, science policy has both push and pull components. The push side involves government funding of research; the pull side involves implementing research results in evidence-based policy development. Governments love the former because they control the message. Governments dislike the latter, because political or ideological goals become secondary. As I wrote earlier this summer, evidence and data are anathema to the “epistemological populism” favored by this government, in particular (see Paul Saurette’s wonderful article here). Arguing with data is challenging and politically costly. It is much easier to simply eliminate or undermine the data. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census is the most glaring (and boldest) example of this strategy, though not the only one (see also closing the Office of the National Science Advisor, eliminating an access to information database used for statistical and historical  research on document requests, the firing of Linda Keen as President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, etc).

Funding research while ignoring its results in formulating policy is a “do as I say, not as I do” strategy which, as any parent can tell you, doesn’t work.

2. We will declare that we are lagging in innovation, lament that nothing has been done about it, and write innumerable opinion pieces about how to fix the problem. This prediction is simply based on projecting from past experience.

The University of Toronto’s one-man innovation op-ed machine, president David Naylor, contributed another entry this week (with UBC’s Stephen Toope). The article is significant, not least for its use of the word “nostrum” in both the title and the article which, you have to admit, is an awfully innovative word.

(Full disclosure – I plan to do much blogging this year about innovation and how to improve it, but will try to focus on programs that are making real efforts at tackling the problem.)

3. Grizzly bear research will enter a decade-long period of ineptitude. Apparently, Mats Sundin has taken an interest in UofAlberta researcher Gordon Stenhouse’s grizzly research project – the collaboration between the former Toronto Maple Leafs captain and Stenhouse, an Edmonton Oilers fan, will almost certainly mean they’ll miss publishing for each of the next five research seasons, leaving grizzly fans bitter and jealous of other, more successful bears.

Where the truth lies…

July 26, 2010

Like most of you, I have for years spent dreary summer vacations at the beach, reading bodice-ripping page turners and discussing just how early is too early for cocktail hour. This summer, however, I have been at my desk reviewing first-year elementary statistics and the reliability 0f voluntary survey data. What a refreshing change!

Honestly, I have been absolutely shocked at the sustained outcry over the Harper government’s cancellation of the long-form census. I could hardly rouse myself to care about statistics on the eve of my first-year exam in the subject. And yet, the announcement has blown up into a political debacle that has dominated headlines and discussions for weeks. When it comes to arcane policy discussions, methods of obtaining reliable statistical data might be tough to beat. Surely Harper’s strategists figured that such a change, announced during the height of summer doldrums, would pass unnoticed. I mean, who cares?

Well, it turns out LOTS of people care. People from a cross-section of Canada – business leaders, policy makers, academics. All of whom rely on the detailed data of the long form census to make crucial decisions in their sectors. The result has been nearly universal – and vocal – condemnation. The decision is such bad policy, and undermines Statistics Canada’s mandate so severely, that our Chief Statistician was compelled to resign.

Even still, why should we care?

There is the obvious reason that the long-form census provides unrivaled data for decision making by industry and policy-makers, and a fount of information to academics and other research groups across the country. Despite the Industry Minister’s insistence to the contrary, a voluntary survey cannot achieve the statistical rigour of a mandatory census. And good data is essential, especially in the much-vaunted knowledge economy. Data mining is a cornerstone of this new economy, and its effective performance requires good, reliable data. And it didn’t get much more reliable than StatsCan long survey census data.

The government’s specious argument that the survey is too intrusive is undermined by the data – only two Canadians complained to the privacy commissioner about filling out the 2006 census. As reported, that’s 0.0000067 of Canadians, which even with my elementary knowledge, is pretty statistically insignificant. The numbers don’t back up the policy.

Indeed, there’s the rub. Numbers don’t always back up policy. Justifying policy decisions with data is what we should expect from a transparent, accountable government. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, Statistics Canada (again! so damn inconvenient!) released numbers last week showing that the rates for both crime and violent crime specifically have declined consistently during the last decade – dropping 17% and 22% since 1999 respectively. Nonetheless, the government has introduced Bill C-13, “tough on crime” legislation that will reportedly nearly double the cost of administering prisons, at an additional cost of nearly $5-billion (!) annually. How does Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews justify the urgency of such a bill? By citing an abstract need to “keep Canadians safe”.

This isn’t simply a case of ideology trumping data. Indeed, as Paul Saurette, Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, argues persuasively (sorry – forgot the link. It’s a great article which you should read here), it is evidence of this government’s embrace of “epistemological populism”. As he writes:

[epistemological populism] is a theory of knowledge that assumes that the most reliable and trustworthy type of knowledge is the direct individual experience of “common” people – the lessons of which can be unproblematically universalized. In such a theory, the more numerical, general, and statistical the analysis, the less trustworthy it is. For as we all know, our own eyes never lie but numbers can say whatever they want them to say.

This strain of thinking has been increasingly evident in politics. This is especially true  in the United States, where conservative radio talk show hosts rant about “elites” and “eggheads” who don’t understand what regular people just know to be true. Here in Canada, those who cite the need for accurate data are, in the conservative think-tank Fraser Institute’s estimation, “vested interest groups” and “elites”. Satirical conservative pundit Stephen Colbert captured the essence of epistemological populism in his White House correspondents’ dinner speech:

That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.

This is why the long form census decision is big news. This is why people are up in arms. The long form census is the best data we have in this country, and is essential to understanding our society. But relying on data encourages – indeed, should necessitate – evidence-based decision making. But data can be inconvenient, and may contradict our assumptions (just ask any disappointed graduate student). Instead of changing assumptions, epistemological populism encourages our prejudices and assumes that the data is wrong – we can just believe our guts. And that allows a government to do whatever it feels is right.

As a modern democracy, we must expect better from the government. We should be beyond governing by hunch and feel. Science policy works in two directions. This blog is mostly about policy for science, but science for policy is also essential. Ignoring the data when crafting policy is unconscionable. Eliminating the data altogether is unforgivable.

Public has a right to influence research policy

June 29, 2010

Newly discovered treatments offering miracle-like cures have long held an understandable attraction for desperate patients and those who love them. Whether peddled dishonestly by snake-oil salesmen of years past, or trumpeted with the best of intentions on today’s blogs and news sites, there has always been a hopeful audience of patients desperate for treatments for myriad health problems. Though research often reveals the ineffectiveness of these “cures”, this research takes years to complete, if it happens at all. Meanwhile, patients clamour for these treatments, spending money and hope on these untested – and potentially harmful – approaches.

Thus, there is often a tension between patients desperate for treatment and physicians, researchers, and policy makers who must balance the risks and benefits, as well as allocate limited health and research resources. These issues have most recently come to a head in the debate surrounding angioplasty as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. The benefits of this approach are based on a single study performed by Dr. Zamboni and colleagues, who suggest a novel link between MS and chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI), which can be treated with percutaneous angioplasty – a relatively minor procedure. Though Dr. Zamboni’s suggestive and unexpected results have yet to be confirmed in more rigorous trials, MS patients and their supporters are demanding access to the procedure amid breathless media reports. Given the novelty of the idea that CCSVI and MS are linked, and considering the small, uncontrolled cohort of patients in Dr. Zamboni’s study (65 patients), many researchers and policy makers are stressing the need for more evidence before deciding whether to support the procedure.

Today, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has added to the debate with an editorial urging the creation of a new, more responsive approach to initiating and supporting clinical studies in response to promising therapies (.pdf here, Globe and Mail article here). Arguing that “good health policy decisions should not based on hope and desperation”, the editorial also suggests “scientists and skeptics should avoid dismissing novel ideas prematurely.” The authors despair at the lack of regulation for non-pharmaceutical treatments, noting that rapid and widespread adoption overwhelms the ability to measure and evaluate treatment effectiveness and safety. However, the need for research shouldn’t prohibit access to promising treatments. Instead, the authors argue that innovative treatments be made available to patients, but only within the context of research and evaluation programs that will be able to effectively monitor them.

The authors, though, miss the mark in their exhortations to policy-makers, researchers, and physicians to resist public pressure to fund specific projects. They suggest: “Failure to do so will leave our academic institutions and research community repeatedly at the mercy of advocacy campaigns and decisions based on political expediency and opportunism.” There are two problems with this. First, it is naive to suggest that current research funding decisions are not already based on “political expediency and opportunism”. From breast cancer to alternative energy, lobby groups exert considerable influence on government research funding priorities. Second, though the authors argue that patients should “have their views represented” when deciding where to allocate research funds, they are also patronizingly exhorted to “insist on evidence”, implying that their opinions are based on little more than desperation. The outmoded distinction between dispassionate, ivory tower academics who can see research issues clearly and without self-interest, and desperate, ignorant patients has been abandoned across health research. Patients have a vested interest in supporting promising research with the best likelihood of success. Furthermore, researchers are not immune from self-interested, conservative opinions about where to allocate funds. Finally, those making demands are not simply patients, but taxpayers and charitable contributors whose money literally supports the research. Why shouldn’t they have a strong and loud voice in where that money goes?

Initiating widespread clinical trials for every proposed treatment is clearly impractical, and peer-review should be an essential step in deciding where to allocate scarce funds. A balanced approach is clearly necessary. Physicians may well “have a duty to keep unproven therapies from clinical use”. The corollary, though, is that unproven therapies must therefore be proved or disproved by the research community. It is not enough to stand and block the gate and then urge the public’s confidence in our medical opinions – denying treatment due to a lack of evidence is indefensible unless we are willing to go and get the evidence to decide one way or the other.

I concur with the need to develop the infrastructure to institute clinical trials more rapidly and effectively. Indeed, clinical research is generally underfunded in this country. I think, too, a process for launching fast-track clinical trials for novel therapies is a good one, but should certainly involve patients’ groups. Being responsive to public interest is essential to maintain the public’s support, and should be a crucial part of researchers’ social responsibility. Ultimately, researchers should be working to build bridges between the clinic and the public, not walls.


Research policy odds and sods

June 22, 2010

A number of interesting bits related to science policy have been sitting in my to-do box for a week or two. Here’s the highlights:

1. I recently posted an argument in favor of liberal arts education as a key element in addressing our “innovation gap”. Thankfully, liberal arts programs are not under siege nor are they in danger of disappearing. At least, that’s the conclusion of Maclean’s writer Carson Jerema who admonishes us right in the piece’s title: “Relax, the liberal arts aren’t going anywhere“. He cites StatsCan data that shows, despite numerous demographic changes at Canadian universities, the proportion of undergraduate students enrolled in social sciences and humanities has barely changed since 1992.

2. A couple of thought-provoking pieces on Canadian innovation have appeared in the Globe and Mail. The first piece, by social media and start-up consultant Mark Evans, reiterates the consensus that we’re good at inventions, but fail at commercialization. He suggests that our main failure is that we don’t think globally – we feel the need to succeed here before taking on the world. Given the limited size and scope of our market, this in needlessly limiting.

The second piece, by Roger Martin (Dean of Rotman School of Management and Chair of the Institute of Competitiveness and Prosperity), suggests we too often confuse innovation with invention. He reminds us that innovation is “consumer-driven”, either producing something of greater value at equal cost, or of equal value at lower cost. We do a great job of funding invention, but a poor job of funding innovation. Unlike most of the discussion around Canadian innovation, Martin suggests four ways policy can help improve innovation:

  • Designing innovative educational programs connecting inventors who care about innovation with business people wanting to transform inventions into consumer-relevant innovations. These programs would also involve innovation financiers; public funding could even be available for winning innovations.
  • Ensuring that we develop both the hard science skills and “softer” skills that enhance communication, consumer understanding and team building.
  • Recognizing that necessity is the mother of both invention and innovation – and ensuring that our markets are intensely competitive to pressure our firms to look for ways to add consumer value to their products and processes.
  • Broadening our financing of innovation within existing companies. For example, we should loosen the definition of “fundable R&D,” which is currently far too tight. None of the success stories described above would have qualified for financing of the innovations that made them world leaders.

3. Finally, Dave at The Black Hole discusses his recent participation in a British panel discussion about the role of science in public policy. His summary echoes many of the suggestions floated at the Canadian Science Policy Conference this fall:

  • Create sabbaticals in Parliament for early-career researchers, providing real-world experience of how policy works and building bridges between politicians and scientists. The UK already has such a program, which seems to be popular.
  • As Preston Manning urged, scientists need to understand how analysis and decision-making differ between scientists and politicians. Scientists may focus intently on a single research question, withholding judgment until the loose ends are tied up. Politicians are generally engaged in a multitude of tasks, and can’t always afford to wait until all the data is in before taking action. Scientists seeking to influence policy need to understand this.
  • Canada needs a political advocacy group akin to the AAAS.
  • Political engagement is usually performed by individual researchers, with their colleagues and institutions often unaware of their activity. This prevents a coordinated approach and precludes the opportunity for colleagues to learn from their more politically-engaged couterparts.

Innovation isn’t just about science funding

June 1, 2010

Improving Canadian innovation is a major justification for the government’s recent investment in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. According to Industry Minister Tony Clement, $200 million over the next ten years for world-leading scientists demonstrates a “commitment to ensuring Canada’s future economic growth by investing in innovation”.

But does world-class scientific research lead to increased innovation?

Investing in innovation is the big justification for dedicating large sums of money to a number of research funding programs. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, for instance, is dedicated almost exclusively to funding scientific research infrastructure at post-secondary institutions. CIHR and NSERC, science funding agencies that each administer $1-billion research budgets, have specific innovation strategies to try to translate research results from the lab to the street. IRAP, the NRC’s major innovation program, spends $100-million annually to help companies grow through “innovation and technology”.

Clearly, there is a link between research and innovation, but it isn’t clear exactly what it is.

At the risk of undermining this blog’s raison d’etre, I’d like to suggest that encouraging researchers to be more innovative through increased funding is not likely to produce the innovation government is seeking.

The fact is, our researchers are already among the most innovative in the world. Successful research is, by its very nature, about innovation. New theories, new techniques, new discoveries – innovation is at the heart of successful academic research. And, according to recent high-profile reports, we’re among the best – the most innovative – in the world. Stable and sufficient funding will ensure that our researchers continue to be world-leaders in research innovation.

But that’s not really the kind of innovation the government is looking for when it talks about our “innovation gap”. Where we fall behind is in the translation of research into social, cultural, or commercial innovations.

And while I have immense respect for scientific researchers in this country, I’ve met only a handful who could comfortably span the whole innovation landscape, from bench to market. And even they are happier and more productive when they’re concentrating on their research.

Expecting researchers to produce innovative research and to translate it into the broader world is unrealistic. And giving more money to researchers isn’t going to change that.

So, how do we achieve this innovation?

Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious or clear. Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications. It doesn’t require a highly-specialized skill set. It requires a broad skill set that involves creative thinking, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cultural and civic understanding – all of which need to be applied to the varied stages of innovation development.

These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs. These are also the attributes of a liberal arts and science education.

Unfortunately, with the increasing focus on innovation and competitiveness in a scientific and technological world, we increasingly demean the value of this sort of education. But if we look at innovation success stories, they are not the exclusive domain of scientists. Research in Motion was co-created by an engineer and a commerce graduate. Canada’s biggest pharmaceutical company, Biovail, was founded by someone without any post-secondary education, but who had the broad skill set necessary to start and develop the company. Tech entrepreneurs I meet are as likely to be history, philosophy, and economics graduates as computer scientists or engineers. Even a who’s-who of Canadian high-tech CEOs have made an explicit case for the importance of  liberal arts and science graduates in their industries.

Yes, we need to fund scientific research to ensure that we have a deep pool of innovation from which to draw. But translating this research into world-leading social or commercial innovation won’t happen if we leave it strictly to the scientists. Individuals trained in the social sciences and humanities bring an essential skill set to the process, and we neglect funding these areas at our competitive peril.

SSHRC shouldn’t be left to wither on the vine of research funding. Supporting strong and diverse research programs at our universities ensures that we are producing graduates that can contribute to all steps of the innovation process.

Combining world-leading research with the broad skill sets of a liberal arts education is essential to address our innovation gap. Increased trans-disciplinary research between science faculties and others – business, law, library science, arts – can help move research results out of the lab and into the broader world. These collaborations can be mutually beneficial for the researchers involved. And industry-academic partnerships need to move beyond collaborations between private and public labs working in the same space to include cross-sector collaborations – connect biomedical labs with development NGOs, say, or engineering departments with startup entrepreneur associations.

We need fresh thinking on innovation, and more ambitious thinking. We also need to be clear that innovation is a complicated process involving many players beyond the bright lights that produce the research.

CERCs: Innovative Research, Stale Criticism

May 21, 2010

Canada’s poor innovation record in science and technology is well-documented and much maligned. Less well-publicized is our abysmal track record of innovation in complaint and criticism.

This week, the government announced the inaugural Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs). This program involves providing $200-million to an elite group of recruits who are performing world-class, cutting-edge research. It involves the recruitment of 19 researchers and associated research staff to 13 universities across Canada. Combined with the addition of post-docs and other researchers to their labs, the recruitment of these chairs will mean hundreds of new scientists working in basic and applied research across the country. Furthermore, with stable and sizable funding, these researchers will be freed from the scrabbling for money as research funding is increasingly targeted to ever-changing government priorities. Many academics would thrill for this sort of research independence.

Read more…

Manning as champion of science

May 17, 2010

A couple of articles this weekend highlighted former Reform Party leader Preston Manning’s emergence as a voice of support for better science policy in this country. Having seen him speak on  the subject at the fall’s Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), I can confirm that he is an eloquent and ardent supporter of science and scientists in Canada. His appearance at last weekend’s Science Policy Symposium in Gatineau, QC provided another opportunity to profile Mr. Manning’s thoughts on how science can better influence policy in Canada, and why it should.

Mr. Manning shared the stage at the conference with David Suzuki, two public personas assumed to be as far apart as possible on the ideological divide. My experience with Manning, however, demonstrated that when he speaks about science and environmental policy, he’s far from the cartoonish right-wing idealogue his opponents imagine. He’s thoughtful and passionate about why Canada needs to be doing a better job environmentally and scientifically. As such, he and Dr. Suzuki aren’t that far apart.

Léo Charbonneau, at the University Affairs blog Margin Notes, provides a nice summary of the presentation by the two men. Manning reiterated the main points he presented at the CSPC – scientists need to get involved in politics, scientists need to do a better job of communicating effectively, etc. Léo’s piece provides a good outline of his points, as well as Dr. Suzuki’s response. As Léo points out, there remains an unanswered question about what to do if elected officials choose not to listen to scientists, despite the best efforts of scientists to engage and communicate effectively.

The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Church presented a profile of Manning’s work as a spokesman for science policy in the weekend edition. It’s a nice summary of the work Manning is doing, and also addresses the pairing of Manning with Suzuki at the conference. Despite the lack of fireworks onstage, she manages to get one inflammatory quote from Suzuki: “Our big disagreement is he thinks the free market is going to solve everything, which is total bullshit.” Nice, Dr. Suzuki. That’s some effective scientist communication.

Post-docs are not students, also not really employees

May 11, 2010

Post-doctoral fellows are employees, not students, according to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA). But they’re a special kind of employee – the kind that pays taxes but doesn’t receive any employee benefits.

The Black Hole blog has a feature article outlining the CRA’s response to a formal request for clarification made by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS). The status of post-doctoral fellows (PDFs) has been a cloudy issue when it comes to taxation and benefits – with some universities classifying them as students while others didn’t, which has had important implications for declaring taxable income.

Read more…

Recent Roundup

May 7, 2010

Hello all,

It’s been a long time. Life got in the way of blogging, but things have sorted themselves and I’m back in the science policy saddle. Lots has piled up while I was away. Today I’m going to list highlights from the last couple of weeks of science and research policy, and then next week we’ll get back into the regular routine. Perhaps we’ll check back in with the NRC and see how things are progressing there. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

  • The Lancet, one of the most respected and widely-read medical journals in the w0rld, published an editorial today slamming the Conservative Government as “hypocritical and unjust” for proposing a maternal health plan for G8 adoption that does not include safe abortion services. It suggests that 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year, and depriving women abroad the same services available in Canada suggests the Canadian plan is based on prejudice and not sound scientific evidence. This issue is not going away. Not necessarily research-related, but when the Lancet speaks, the medical community listens.
  • Yesterday, the journal Science published a letter by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences (including 11 Nobel laureates) in which they fight back against increasing attacks on climate change researchers. Citing “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution… based on innuendo and guilt by association”, the group calls for politicians to stop spreading “outright lies”. The group also declares that: “all citizens should understand some basic scientific facts”. Neither of these two demands are likely to be met. These obviously pie in the sky scientists conclude, “Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively”. If I were a betting man, I know which choice I’d lay some pretty serious coin on…
  • Across the pond, the UK election has resulted in utter chaos and confusion, and at the time of writing no one seems sure who will form the government. The New Scientist, though, has declared a loser: science. Despite having figured prominently in the lead-up to voting day, several “science-friendly” candidates lost their seats. The article quotes Mark Henderson of The Times, who says: “This election looks to have had a truly dreadful outcome for science, regardless of which party or parties ultimately go on to form the Government. It has denuded the House of Commons of science’s strongest advocates, and significantly eroded its scientific expertise.” Of course, some countries simply dream of having science advocates to denude and scientific expertise to erode from their houses of commons…
  • The only body in Canada that oversees research ethics boards – the National Council on Ethics in Human Research (NCEHR) has had its funding terminated by Health Canada and CIHR. Unlike other nations, Canada now has no body that audits or oversees the research ethics boards across the country. Mind you, even when funded, the NCEHR had a staff of three that would conduct only 6-12 site visits annually, had no authority to mandate reviews or recommendations, and didn’t even report findings to government. As the CMAJ points out, we used to be considered a wasteland in research ethics oversight, now we’re a wasteland. Nice.
  • These have been big days at CFI. First, international auditing heavyweights KPMG released a glowing report, concluding: “the evaluation of the CFI and its impacts was overwhelmingly positive. Although some minor operational refinements are suggested, the CFI’s model and program delivery are both outstanding, and the CFI remains a critical foundation for Canadian research”. The CFI also put together a panel of seven “experts” who looked at CFI and KPMG’s report and concurred: “In summary, the Panel concludes that the CFI has been remarkably successful in helping Canada to attract, retain and develop research talent.” Indeed, the panel concludes that CFI’s design and delivery processes can be considered “world’s best practice”. Both reports hope that the CFI mandate will deliver increasing innovation in the future.
  • CFI also announced the appointment of Dr. Gilles G. Patry as the new President and CEO of the CFI. Dr. Patry is Professor of Civil Engineering at UofOttawa, was President and Vice-Chancellor of UofO (2001-2008), and has held appointments at École Polytechnique de Montréal and McMaster. Dr. Patry also founded a successful company specializing in wastewater software (no, really. software that models wastewater solutions. who knew?). He thus possesses the magical combination of experience in both academia and industry so sought after in this innovation age. I was going to write something snarky about experience modeling sewage management as an asset for heading a government funding agency, but then I remembered that CFI is considered world’s best practice, so decided to show some deference.
  • Like CFI, Genome Canada is apparently looking to hire a new President and CEO, and is now advertising the position widely through headhunting agency Odgers Berndtson. Considering Dr. Martin Godbout announced he’d be stepping down from the position in October, doesn’t it seem a bit weird that they’re still looking – and planning to interview candidates in June? Maybe no one expected GC to be around for this much longer, or perhaps qualified candidates were looking for more than a six-month kamikaze mission overseeing the slow death of the agency.
  • Of course, the NRC already chose its new President. An underwhelming news release was issued by NRC to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the agency. Industry Minister Tony Clement and his Science Sidekick Gary Goodyear attended an NRC Council meeting to welcome the new guy, and pledge their vociferous, enthusiastic support. “NRC is going to play a vital role in the government’s plans” Minister Clement is reported to have said. Minister Goodyear “pledged his support as NRC moves forward to maximize its contributions to Canada”. Really? Do these guys actually know what NRC does? Did anyone even bother to brief them on the way to the meeting? Wow. They don’t even pretend to care.
  • Ontario has announced a new Life Sciences Commercialization Strategy, with an injection of $161-million. The announcement was met with less controversy than the Ontario government’s new sex ed strategy.
  • Nice article in support of the Canadian Council of Academies, which just underwent its midterm assessment. The author (Dave @ The Black Hole, a blog that keeps impressing me) worries that the CCA will wither on the vine, like so many other Canadian initiatives. The assessment was generally positive, but as Dave points out, the future of the CCA is tenuous.
  • Maryse at Frogheart has been blogging up a storm – mostly nanotechnology-related tidbits, but some policy too. She also has some very pointed comments about the CCA, suggesting it is far too focused on experts and policy makers and not nearly interested enough in communicating with the public – a situation she contrasts with the US and UK.
  • The CMAJ has an interesting series on how to divide the research funding pie. I’ll look at this in more depth later, but wanted to bring it to your attention now. Here are parts one and two.
  • As always, lots of talk about innovation. Not much new, to be honest – mostly just recycling existing thoughts and ideas and selling them without any value added. Wait, are we suffering from an innovation gap in journalism, too? Recent reports suggest we lack commerce skills, are at risk of falling behind other nations if we don’t do something, etc. Personally, I think we really need some innovative thinking on innovation.

Ok, that’s it for now. Next week I’m back in the game, dissecting the good, the bad, and the ugly (especially the ugly) of Canadian science policy.

Whither the NRC?

April 7, 2010

Last week, the Government announced John McDougall’s appointment as the new President of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. His appointment provides an opportunity to point something out:

The NRC is a mess.

And the mess of the NRC neatly encapsulates much that’s wrong with Canadian science policy. No direction, no cohesion, multiple conflicting purposes.

What is the NRC?

The NRC was founded more than 90 years ago to advise the government on matters related to science and technology. It evolved into a federal research laboratory with the construction of the Sussex Dr. labs in the 1930s, and was the focus of Canada’s research efforts during WWII. Post-war, the NRC expanded and was a major source of Canadian research success, with notable achievements like the invention of the pacemaker, development of Canola and the crash position indicator.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, NRC’s success, growth, and increasing complexity led to the creation of spin-off organizations. Atomic research went to the Atomic Energy of Canada, defense research went to the Defense Research Board. Medical research funding went to the Medical Research Council, later the CIHR. Lastly, support for academic research was passed to NSERC.

All of these organizations have grown and prospered. The NRC? Not so much.

Why not? Well, the NRC is mandated, by the original NRC Act of 1916, “to undertaking, assisting or promoting scientific and industrial research in different fields of importance to Canada”. It did this very successfully into the 1960s, at which point, its greatest successes were carved out and handed to new organizations.

So what’s left? Well the NRC Act has a few specific mandates that the NRC fulfills: standards of measurement, manage observatories, investigate and standardize industrial materials, perform agricultural research, and maintain a national science library (which is under major financial stress, but let’s save that for another time). But the general mandate to “undertake, assist, or promote” scientific and industrial research is open to interpretation, and is a source of conflict.

The NRC has research institutes in every province in the country, from the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in BC to the Institute for Ocean Technology in Newfoundland. A total of 26 institutes across the country, covering all aspects of science and technology, and employing more than 4,000 people. It’s a broad effort and employs a lot of great scientists.

But since the 1980s, the NRC has been without a strong sense of self. Is it a basic research organization or an applied research organization? Does it exist to perform independent, government-sponsored research, or does it provide research services in support of the private sector? Does it perform early-stage research and then partner with industry, or is it a fee-for-service research organization? The answer is yes.

The NRC is being pulled in too many directions.

What does our Minister of Industry have to say about the NRC?

NRC‘s aim is to bring timely solutions to market in areas of national importance: clean energy, health and wellness, and the environment. NRC will continue to partner with Canadian firms to deliver tangible, market-oriented results in high-impact and emerging industry sectors, such as the automotive sector.

But the NRC isn’t designed to do this – this is a different mandate than what is laid out in the Act. Which would be fine – maybe it’s time for a change – except that the NRC institutes have been, not surprisingly, built according to the mandate outlined in the NRC Act – as research laboratories, not product development laboratories or partnership incubators. And the people recruited to run these labs are scientists, not business-people. They want to do science, not chase down industrial partnerships in the automotive sector or take their clean energy products to market. They’ve been recruited for their scientific abilities; it’s a bit of a stretch to expect them also to be market innovators.

Furthermore, because the government does not fund the full cost of research at the institutes, these labs are dependent on research funding from external sources. If the funding was coming from Canadian business, then the vision of our Industry minister would be fulfilled. Unfortunately, Canadian business is notoriously averse to investing in academic or government research. So these labs are dependent on CIHR, NSERC, or private funding – mostly basic science funding. So, the government builds a system of research laboratories, forces them into dependence on basic science funding, and then complains that there isn’t enough market-driven research going on?

It makes no sense. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Stating that the NRC will play a critical role in sustaining innovation for business isn’t effective policy and leadership, it’s wishful thinking.

If the Government is serious about remaking the NRC – then it has to actually do the job. It needs new organizational models, it needs new people running the labs, it needs a whole infrastructure dedicated to building these bridges. Instead, it seems the policy approach is to starve the labs and then suggest that they increase their business partnerships to make ends meet. To build big, expensive tech transfer administrations into existing institutes. This is the best the Government can do?

Even the appointment of the new President won’t address these problems. As CEO of the Alberta Research Council (ARC), Mr. McDougall turned the ARC into an organization with a $100-million dollar annual budget, three-quarters of which came from self-generated revenues. This is only about a tenth the size of the NRC, mind you, and doesn’t have the added burdens of the dispersed, diverse activities of the national organization. Even Mr. McDougall recognizes this – in an interview he acknowledged that the ARC is really a fee-for-service organization, but the NRC is different – it works in the realm of “big science”.

So maybe the Government should return to the original mandate of the NRC, as outlined in a Government Act more than ninety years old. The NRC should be the government’s research labs. Build bridges between the NRC and its healthier research children – NSERC, CIHR, AECL, etc – instead of forcing an uncomfortable union with industry. Fund the NRC appropriately, and then actually use the NRC for research directly related to government priorities.

And then, take a lesson from the past. Carve out the innovation elements of the NRC into a new organization. Give that organization the responsibility of funding projects through the popular IRAP. Expand its scope to include not just government labs, but also academic research units, and then mandate the organization to build the bridges between these research organizations and industry. Call it the Innovation Council of Canada, make it a part of Industry, staff it with a blend of scientists, business-people and lawyers, and then leave the researchers to do research.

When you have a two-headed beast like the NRC, of course it’s going to try to go in two directions. Split it in two, and let each excel in its own direction.

Why Canada is bush-league at innovation

March 24, 2010

This is what it looks like when a country is serious about innovation.

UBC Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman has been recruited to advise US President Barack Obama on science policy and science education. Prof. Wieman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for work on Bose-Einstein condensates, has been nominated for the post of associate director of science in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). If confirmed by the Senate, he will advise the president on matters of science policy and science education.

The OSTP was created in 1976 to “advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs”:

The mission of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is threefold; first, to provide the President and his senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice on all matters of consequence; second, to ensure that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science; and third, to ensure that the scientific and technical work of the Executive Branch is properly coordinated so as to provide the greatest benefit to society.

The OSTP has a large, permanent staff to perform policy analysis and provide advice and guidance on science-related issues. It is led by a director and four associate directors, all of whom are respected scientists. The director acts as the president’s “science advisor”, a role that dates back to the 1930s and the Roosevelt administration and Vannevar Bush.

And here? We finally appointed a science advisor to the Prime Minister in 2004. And then eliminated the position in 2008, four years later.

Instead, we have a Science, Technology and Innovation Council, and have had going all the way back to 2007. It meets irregularly and has issued one report. One. In two years.

The US has a similar council, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). It exists in addition to the OSTP. Perhaps because these councils can’t provide the detailed, ongoing policy analysis needed to inform everyday government decisions. Nonetheless, PCAST meets publicly several times a year to discuss science policy issues. PCAST posts all information from its meetings, including the presentations given by committee members. How often does STIC meet? I don’t know, but their website looks half-abandoned. There’s no indication of when they meet or what they discuss.

So then, who is in charge of advising the government for science policy? Gary Goodyear. A junior minister without a science background. A Minister of State who reports to the Minister of Industry, not the Prime Minister. A minister whose portfolio is one of two junior ministries in Industry, the other being Small Business and Tourism.

Science and Technology = Small Business and Tourism.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the reason we’re not doing so well on the whole innovation-thing.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of worrying about money for short-term projects and infrastructure, Canadians should be taking a long hard look at how little we actually care about encouraging innovation. Instead of clamouring for a few more dollars being distributed haphazardly, we should be asking for something akin to a unified strategy – no, even just some actual leadership… Because if you want to build an economy for the future, an economy based on innovative, R&D-based industries, you don’t leave the whole shebang to a chiropractor in a junior ministry. You make it a priority.

Post-budget roundup

March 22, 2010

Things here at the Researcher Forum have been quiet since the budget (I’ve been busy and away…). A few weeks have passed, the dust has cleared, and I figured I’d take stock – a survey of internet opinion – and decide whether the research community has come to any sort of consensus on Budget 2010.

In a word, no consensus. In fact, there has been more diversity of opinion about research and this budget than I can recall observing before. And it’s not surprising: even my own opinion is ambivalent, and my overall take on the budget depends on my mood and how generous I happen to be feeling. On the one hand, some increases in funding despite a relatively lean spending environment. On the other hand, tricouncil increases don’t offset last year’s cuts and there are some glaring omissions.

I’ll pick up on more details in the week ahead. But to get us all on the same page, I’ve summarized below the main positions of major stakeholders/commentators.

Read more…

Budget 2010 – A Qualified Success

March 5, 2010

What a difference a year makes.

Last year’s cuts to the research granting councils, though relatively small, were magnified by their inclusion in a so-called “stimulus budget” full of spending increases in other areas.

This year, the opposite is true. Funding increases, though relatively small, are made more significant by the context of spending restraint evidenced elsewhere in the budget.

So what are the research-related numbers?

Read more…

No Research in Speech From the Throne

March 4, 2010

Yesterday, the government outlined the results of its ‘recalibration’ with a speech from the throne (.pdf here). In broad strokes, the government outlined its vision for the recovering economy and signaled its priorities for the coming Parliamentary session.

So what are the government’s plans for research? How will investment in R&D help drive economic recovery and place Canada at the forefront of innovation?

Read more…

Research Funding at Risk

February 23, 2010

While the country is focused on the Olympics, and government is prorogued for “recalibration”, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is busy shaping the 2010 Federal Budget. Perhaps to soften the blow, senior officials have leaked a broad outline of the spending squeeze outlined in the document, set to be tabled March 4.

Speaking generally, officials are suggesting that the 2010 budget won’t include any tax increases or any new spending measures beyond those already announced. The stimulus plan outlined in last year’s budget will continue, but will not be extended.

The government is facing a purported $56-billion deficit, but has refused to raise taxes. To balance the books, therefore, deep spending cuts will be required. Government officials have suggested, though, that the largest spending areas – health, education transfers, and pensions – will be untouched. The government suggests that a balanced budget can be achieved by “curbing growth” in all other areas of government spending, a claim that is widely dismissed.

So what does this mean for research? First, despite insistent arguments from policy analysts and economists which suggest strong investment in R&D is a cornerstone of economic recovery and global competitiveness, research funding was not included among the “sacred cows” of health, education, and pensions. This means that, at best, research funding will have its growth “curbed” – no new spending, no new programs, and a real loss in funding in terms of inflation and overall government spending.

Second, by announcing that there would be “no new spending”, the government has suggested it will implement the research spending cuts outlined in the 2009 budget. These include $147.9-million in budget cuts to the tricouncil funding agencies, $167.8-million in cuts to Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, and $27.7-million in cuts to the National Research Council. And these cuts presumably don’t include widely rumoured cuts to the federal civil service, which includes employees at many federal research institutes. It also suggests that Genome Canada, whose funding was cut in 2009, will be left to wither on the vine, administering programs it began in 2007 and 2008, but without money to launch anything new or renew expiring projects.

By reducing research funding, the government is proving that the more than $2-billion invested in infrastructure – money, it suggested, that underlined its support for research – was nothing more than a makework project for the construction industry. Universities and colleges now have plenty of shiny new lab space and new equipment, but there will be less money to actually use it.

This will be a missed opportunity: we’ve made the investment in space and equipment, why not leverage that by allowing researchers to make the most of it? Instead of empty labs and cutting-edge equipment gathering dust, investment in research now will ensure that the infrastructure spending does not go to waste. By the time we return to balanced budgets, the advantages conferred by the infrastructure spending will be obsolete. Now is the time to invest in our researchers.

Finally, an important point: the government’s plan to balance the budget will require economic growth, and to that end it is planning to invest in job-creation programs. Too often it is forgotten that research grants support the employment of highly-trained personnel. Cuts to research budgets mean fewer operating grants, and those who lose funding invariably have to lay off employees. In a very real way, funding research funds employment. This funding also supports the training of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, whose high-level of training contributes to increased productivity. Cutting funding results in a wasteful increase of highly-trained, unemployed researchers.

This government has the opportunity to ensure that Canada’s economic recovery does not depend on a sudden uptick in the price of oil, or an unexpected surge in demand for timber. We have the opportunity to build a vibrant, modern research-based economy that can compete with the world. We’re as well positioned to do this as anyone, and better than most. Furthermore, the government has already started the job with its infrastructure spending. Let’s not waste this chance.

NSERC sees researchers as out-source labour

February 1, 2010

A couple months ago, NSERC announced two new programs as part of its “Strategies for Partnership and Innovation”. Engage grants are designed to cover direct project costs for up to 6 months and a total of $25,000, and Interaction grants are for $5,000 over three-months to help set up qualifying industry-academic partnerships.

There are a lot of academics who may see some commercial benefits to their research and may seek partnerships and funding to help with this process, so what’s the problem?

Read more…

Can Canada Keep Up?

January 27, 2010

China has surpassed all countries but the US in research output, and should move into the top position within the next decade, according to a ThomsonReuters analysis. India is also on the move, and will be on par with G8 nations within five years. These population giants are benefiting from strong and growing economies, an increasingly educated populace, and massive investments by governments strongly committed to competing internationally in research.

Read more…

Conservatives suggested “Chief Scientist” in policy outline

January 19, 2010

Over at Frogheart, Maryse de la Giroday responded to Nature’s criticism of Canada’s absent science policy by going to straight to the horses’ mouths and posting an interesting analysis of her results. She checked the webpages of the four main federal parties to determine their science policies. Alas, it turns out Nature was correct; even for opposition parties, for whom making grand, empty policy promises is de rigueur, science merits nary a mention.

Read more…

Nature editorial slams Canadian science policy

January 14, 2010

“Canada needs a bigger vision of where its science is going”, according to an editorial published today in the British journal Nature. I strongly suggest you read it. It’s not flattering.

The journal acknowledges the strength of Canadian academic research (“a powerhouse of academic science”), but laments government policy which does nothing to support or use this strength. Recent failings of Canadian science policy are enumerated, and reasons for such weak policy are suggested. Finally, since “muddling along isn’t good enough in today’s economic climate”, the journal calls for a strengthened science policy, a greater vision, and a champion in government who can safeguard this vision:

Read more…

Green brain drain?

January 13, 2010

A series by François Cardinal in Montreal’s La Presse this week suggests that climate researchers are preparing to lead a brain drain from Canadian campuses (here, here, and here).

The suggested reason is the decision by the Conservative government to dedicate no new funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospherics Science (CFCAS), the major funding agency in the country for climate and environmental research. Though the government recently extended CFCAS’s mandate by a year, through March 2012, the Foundation hasn’t received any new government funding since Paul Martin’s Liberal government dedicated $50-million to the Foundation in 2004.

Cardinal suggests researchers believe CFCAS is doomed to closure, and as many as 20 climate researchers across the country are already seeking employment elsewhere. Dr. René Laprise, the director of le Centre pour l’étude et la simulation du climat à l’échelle régionale (ESCER) de l’UQAM, suggests that his group – the only one of its kind in Quebec – will be forced to close its doors if CFCAS doesn’t receive new funding to support groups like his.

Quebeckers, more than other Canadians, are politically motivated by environmental issues. The recent photo-op of PM Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest at a green energy project announcement in Rivière du Loup (which, coincidentally, elected a Conservative candidate in a traditionally Bloc riding by election just two months ago) suggests that the Conservatives recognize that they will need to improve their environmental bona fides if they want to perform well in Quebec. We’ll see whether the forthcoming budget might include some funds to save the UQAM research group…

Ignatieff’s vision for postsecondary education

January 12, 2010

With parliament prorogued for a couple of months, Official Leader of the Opposition Michael Ignatieff is on tour, talking to Canadians, trying to improve his Stephane Dion-like popularity ratings. Yesterday, he addressed a group at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Not surprisingly, given his academic background, he expounded at length when asked about his vision for post-secondary education under an Ignatieff-led government. These comments come thanks to Keith Lehwald, who attended and provides an interesting blow-by-blow account on his blog.

So what would Iggy allegedly do?

  • he would replace lump-sum transfers to provinces with a fixed post-secondary transfer (yeah, right… He’d find out pretty quickly that unified provinces angry about federal encroachment in their responsibilities would make the Harper conservatives pale  in comparison).
  • Ignatieff sees universities as economic engines, especially for economically-challenged regions like the maritimes (does that mean he’ll establish new universities in northern Ontario, rural Quebec, and the north?).
  • He suggested his government would encourage students to split their studies between universities in different parts of the country. He admitted he’s not sure how it would be done, though students could be “incentivized” to do so (I think most people call that “bribery”, not “incentivization”. This is a crazy idea. Sure, it’s cute on paper to imagine a student from Université du Quebec à Chicoutimi spending two years studying at the University of Victoria – imagine the boost to national unity! – but practically speaking, it’s a nightmare. Students are already hard-pressed to finish their graduate studies in a timely fashion, and now they’re going to spend a couple of years gallivanting about seeing the country? And they’re going to be supported in this by their supervisors? and their departments? Right).
  • most intriguingly, Ignatieff allegedly suggested his government would create a national Ministry of Research. This ministry would be responsible for administering federal grants and would be charged with encouraging cross-province collaboration between academic researchers. (this has the potential to be really game-changing, ensuring a strong cabinet voice for Canadian research and serving as a signifier that Canada places research at the heart of its political and economic vision. On the other hand, it is probably more likely to end up as a colossally expensive bureaucratic boondoggle that will change little but will become a black hole for funding that might otherwise have gone to the tri-council, for instance).

The students at Dalhousie thanked Ignatieff with the standard issue t-shirt, but with a case of Nova Scotia’s pride which, to be honest, Ignatieff might have been drinking when he came up with a few of these suggestions.

Craziness notwithstanding, at least Ignatieff is out there, talking about education and research. Perhaps the ideas are still in gestational form, and will be fully developed by the time he’s finished his national tour and government resumes (assuming, of course, PM Harper deigns to let Parliament reconvene some day…).

2010 – a rough ride ahead

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, I gave a brief look back at 2009 in science policy. Today, I cast my eye ahead, and point to some broad trends I’ll be watching. Of course, it’s a mug’s game to make predictions, but heck – everyone else is doing it, so why not?

Of course there are easy things to predict – Canadian researchers will continue to produce much world-class research all the while complaining about funding levels and priorities, government will continue making a big show of supporting research (and every other sector) regardless of actual policy decisions, and observers (ahem) will yell from the sidelines  – ever was it thus.

Unfortunately, it is also easy to predict that 2010 is shaping up to be a tough year for Canadian research policy. Despite much to be positive about in 2009 – spending announcements, optimistic conferences, etc. – an unfortunate confluence of politics and economics will put strong research policy on the defensive in 2010.

Read more…

2009 – a look back at science policy

January 4, 2010

Happy New Year, everyone. Like so many others, I’ve emerged from holiday exile and am back at it today, ready to bid farewell to 2009 and engage with what will surely be an eventful 2010. Despite the general quiet of the holiday season, a number of relevant science policy issues are sitting on my desk, begging for my attention – NSERC’s new Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation, the OECD’s 2009 Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard, a ream of funding announcements… I’ll get into these gradually over the next couple of weeks.

To ease us back into it, though, I provide to you a brief look back at 2009. Tomorrow, I’ll have a look at what to expect in 2010.

Read more…

UK slashes funding for physics projects, students

December 17, 2009

The British physics community has been left staggering after yesterday’s announcement of cuts totalling more than £115-million ($198-million Cdn). The cuts are concentrated among projects in nuclear, space, and particle physics, though the government also announced cuts of 25% to PhD fellowships and student grants. The student cuts are particularly worrisome to University College London Professor Mark Lancaster, head of particle physics at the university who suggests “a lost generation of students will be created who are denied the opportunity to do a PhD and cutting-edge science”.

Read more…

Science Policy Conference talks online

December 14, 2009

The folks behind the Canadian Science Policy Conference have posted videos on their site of all the talks from the conference held last month in Toronto. There’s a lot there, and I encourage anyone interested in science policy to check it out – particularly if you’re interested in getting a sense of where Canadian science policy is headed. There are a number of highlights; I’d recommend the two plenary sessions and the keynote speech by Preston Manning, which was felt by many to be the highlight of the conference.

And if you want even more, there are a number of interviews with conference speakers available at The Mark.