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Where we often fall short

May 3, 2009

… and don’t miss the comments section on that article.
Is Canada losing the lab-rat race?

“As the journal Nature recently said, Canada has maintained a position among the world’s top 10 countries in scientific output. Where it often falls short, besides in funding, is in self-promotion.

“We demonstrably do exceptional science, pretty much on bare-bones budgets,” says Tony Pawson, a researcher at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who in 2008 won the Kyoto Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel, for discoveries about cells that offers insights into diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

The United States, which wins the bulk of Nobel Prizes, is much better at advocating on behalf of its scientists – even during the previous eight years under president George W. Bush, when science was far from a top priority.

U.S. institutions lobby on behalf of their researchers in a way that Canadian universities often do not, suggests Alan Bernstein, former president of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the granting agency that funds medical research at Canadian universities and now the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York.

Success breeds success, he says. “As a nation, we expect our hockey teams to win because they always have. If you are good as a nation at something, there are role models for young people coming through.”

Scientists themselves accept some of the blame. Samuel Weiss, who won a prestigious Gairdner Award last year for his discovery that the adult brain can produce new cells, says Canadian scientists have to get better at thumping their chests.

“As scientists, we are way too reticent to tell the story and engage the community the way scientists engage the community in other countries. … We’ll point to government, but I don’t know if we have made the case about how important science is.”

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