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Scientists say Obama gets it, and Canada doesn’t

April 1, 2009

The Hill Times, March 30, 2009

Scientists say Obama gets it, and Canada doesn’t

More scientists may follow funding dollars to the United States.

By Harris MacLeod

Scientists say they are not worried about whether Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear believes in evolution, but are concerned that his understanding of research will see scientists follow funding dollars to the United States.

“Are [Gary Goodyear’s] beliefs around religion, evolution, creationism relevant? I think it does become relevant if those beliefs begin to influence policy-making. Is there any evidence of that so far? No, so I think we have to be cautious. But we would want someone in that portfolio who does understand the nature of scientific research,” said David Robinson, associate executive director for research and advocacy for the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

Mr. Robinson had a meeting with Mr. Goodyear (Cambridge, Ont.) early this month that has now become infamous after The Globe and Mail reported that the meeting quickly descended into a shouting match and ended with Mr. Goodyear’s aide telling Mr. Robinson and his colleague to “shut up” before storming out of the room.

A few weeks later Mr. Goodyear was in the media again after refusing to confirm in an interview whether or not he believed in evolution, which sparked a debate about whether or not that should be a requirement for the minister in charge of the government’s science portfolio. Later, Mr. Goodyear, a devout Christian, said he did believe in evolution, but he gave an explanation of his beliefs that left some in the scientific community wondering whether he understood the difference between evolution and adaptation.

“Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that’s not relevant and that’s why I refused to answer the question,” Mr. Goodyear said.

Mr. Robinson said that though Mr. Goodyear’s clarification further “muddied the waters” for some scientists, he said his main concern is that the minister doesn’t understand the correlation between basic research and the economy. He said the cut in funding for Canada’s research councils, paired with the $10-billion that U.S. President Barack Obama has allocated for research funding, will see a brain drain that Canada spent most of the 1990s trying to overcome.

“We have a fairly porous border when it comes to research and the Obama administration is putting all kinds of money into research funding over the next few years. We did, over the course of the ’90s, manage to reduce the gap in terms of research funding between the U.S. and Canada, unfortunately, that gap is rising now and we’ve heard from some of our members whose funding is about to run out, or who are unsure of where funding is going to be in a year or so, that the prospects of moving to the United States are very attractive right now,” he said.

In the minority Conservative government’s budget, which was tabled in January, there was $2-billion in funding to refurbish university infrastructure, however, there was a five per cent cut to Canada’s three research councils that fund scientific research, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Mr. Goodyear defended his government’s science and technology strategy in Question Period last week, saying that an investment in facilities and equipment for research will attract scientists to Canada.

“The government has recently surpassed the $10-billion a year number for our science and tech communities. We put $5.1-billion new dollars into science and technology. We have recently announced a $2-billion knowledge infrastructure program, so those scientists have the best facilities with the best equipment,” said Mr. Goodyear.

The five per cent cut amounts to $147-million over three years, and many scientists have said the government’s approach of pouring money into university infrastructure will amount to new labs with no one working in them.

“The government appears to have signalled in the last budget, although it’s by no means clear, that they view science as something that can be put on the backburner,” said Prof. Michael Rudnicki, who is a leading scientist and researcher and the scientific director of the Stem Cell Network. “The minister of Science and Technology argues that a lot of it has been spent on infrastructure, which is great, it’s super, but when real research budgets are being cut in real dollars it’s hard to accept that argument.”

In 2007 the Conservative government made a number of appointments to the Reproductive Technology Board, which oversees stem cell research, among other things, that many in the scientific community feared were ideologically motivated.

“Health Canada went through quite a long consultation process where experts were identified, and short lists were drawn up, and extensive interviews were conducted. But then the list was submitted and who were appointed but an entire different slate of mostly pro-life people,” said Prof. Rudnicki.

The appointments included a pro-life Rabi, and a former employee of the Archdiocese of Toronto who had also expressed a pro-life position in the past. Prof. Rudnicki said that though the board is “overbuilt” for the relatively modest amount of stem cell research being done in Canada, the administration of the board was not effected by the pro-life leanings of the Conservative appointed members.

“Those appointments were based on ideology but the terms of reference that have been given to the committee and the management of the committee has really kept it true to its mandate,” he said.

But Prof. Rudnicki echoed Mr. Robinson’s concerns that Mr. Goodyear, and the Conservative government as a whole, do not understand the essential role that basic research plays in contributing to a healthy economy, especially right now. Prof. Rudnicki said Canada has been effective at closing the research gap with the U.S. over the last 10 to 15 years, however he said it only takes a few years of lacklustre funding to “destroy the critical mass” of scientific researchers that Canada has been able to attract.

“[Mr. Goodyear] has not been able to articulate a vision for the role of science and technology in Canada that is compelling or has a larger view,” said Prof. Rudnicki. “Are we a first-tier country where science, innovation, and research is understood implicitly to be critical to our mission to succeed in the future at all levels, including economic? Or is the vision of this government that it’s sufficient to cut down trees and pump oil?”

Liberal science and technology critic Marc Garneau (Westmount-Ville-Marie, Que.), who worked as a scientific researcher and astronaut before entering politics, said the government’s budget shows that they don’t understand the importance of scientific research and that it was more politically motivated than well-thought-out.

He cited the example of Genome Canada, an organization that supports medical and genetic research projects, that was shutout of the budget, much to the surprise of many in the scientific community.

“Probably what happened was that they said, ‘We have some money in there for Genome Canada, it’s already showing on the books as going out to 2013, so we’ll skip them this year.’ It’s that politically motivated approach to deciding where to put financing as opposed to realizing that if we don’t fund them this year it’s going to actually interrupt their future planning cycle for downstream research. I don’t think they made that connection, and that to me speaks to a lack of understanding of the real nature of it…. They think, ‘If we put a certain amount, doesn’t matter where we put it, then we’ll be okay,'” said Mr. Garneau.

Mr. Garneau said that President Obama clearly understands the importance of basic research to his country’s economy, and that the current economic crisis should not be an excuse for the Conservative government to treat science as a luxury. He said that former Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were in power during times of economic uncertainty when deficit cutting was a central objective, but they still made significant investments in research that helped close the gap with the U.S. that is now beginning to widen once again.

“[Funding research] cost money, but turned out to be very visionary and today has made Canada one of the leaders in terms of focusing on scientific research, and that was started at a difficult time when they had to make some very difficult decisions. The fact that we are in an economic crisis doesn’t preclude us from having some long term vision,” said Mr. Garneau.

hmacleod@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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