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Outside perspective on Canadian science policy

May 11, 2009

The Office of Science Technology is an arm’s length policy and analysis institute of the Austrian government headquartered at Austria’s embassy in Washington, US.  It has just released an “in-depth report on S&T policy in Canada“, and provides an interesting outsider’s perspective. A few highlights:

While the report criticizes the removal of the office of science advisor, it places blame partly on the Liberals:

it should be clarified that, from the very start, success for the S&T advisor’s office was rather unlikely due to a poorly defined mandate and – as so often with such appointments – because the funding made available was inadequate for the operations of such an office.

About the STIC:

Some say that having an 18-member council provides even better advice than a single person, especially since many members of the STIC are renowned scientists and entrepreneurs.  Others, however, have aired their fear that the council lacks independence and even objectivity in its advice, since government administrators occupy several seats on the council.

About the debate on research funding:

many Canadian scientists have complained about the way science has been treated under Harper. In the lead-up to the October 2008 election, they rallied against the Conservative government by issuing two letters of protest. One called for politicians to crack down on greenhouse-gas emissions, the other for an end to the mistreatment and politicization of science. “While science is not the only factor to be considered in political decision making, ignoring and subverting science and scientific processes is unacceptable,” said the October 8 letter, which was signed by 85 scientists and addressed to the five party leaders.

We won’t hold it against the Austrian embassy that they neglected to mention the 2200+ signatories to a more recent open letter… The Austrians also noted that our science minister has received his share of heat:

Goodyear has been in the headlines a good deal recently – although not intentionally. First, in early March of this year, he apparently stormed out of a meeting… Goodyear was caught again in media crossfire on March 17, when a statement of his on evolution caused a national tempest in a teapot. His scientific credentials were heavily discussed and called into question by the scientific community and political opponents because he didn’t want to answer the question as to whether he believed in evolution.

The report summarizes the budget expenditures, and mentions the $5.1-billion the Conservatives mention when science support is questioned:

One might assume that this would be most welcome to the research community; but alas, it has caused quite an outcry among scientists and sparked heavy criticism. The reason is that those infrastructure investments are overshadowed by cuts to the major grant-funding programs in Canada’s federal budget…Observers within Canada and also from abroad have cautioned that such a lack of support for scientists could trigger a damaging brain drain. Especially considering the huge R&D stimulus package in the United States, some argue that Canadian researchers might simply take their research south of the border.

It concludes by quoting Arthur Carty, former Science Advisor and President of NRC:

as Carty recently stated… Canada has done very well in the last five or six years in bringing in some bright minds from the United States. But with the US now beginning to pour money into science, Canada had better watch out. “When your nearest neighbor has decided to turn things around and invest heavily in science and research, it is possible that some people will see that the sunshine is on the other side of the fence,” says Carty.

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