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McGill Principal’s call to arms

May 15, 2009

Heather Monroe-Blum, Principal of McGill University, published a commentary in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette elaborating on the meaning of the recent STIC report on Canada’s science and technology performance. It’s a rousing piece which emphasizes that STIC’s overall message – that Canada can do better in science and technology – is a positive message: it’s not so much that we’re not doing well enough, it’s that Canada CAN do better, and therefore should.

Monroe-Blum summarizes Canada’s strengths – our university-based research, well-educated populace – and our weaknesses – dearth of PhDs, lack of elite scientists and institutions. So how can Canada do better?

We can provide the kind of long-lasting, predictable levels of support our universities and university researchers must have to achieve world-class results that can be shared with leading industries. We can move this country up the ladder of those that drive social and economic development in a host of areas around the world. It will take commitment. It will take a shared and coherent vision. It will take leadership in different corners of this country, not just in the House of Commons; everyone has a role to play.

So what’s the solution? Some basic, fundamental concepts.

What do we need to do as a nation? Celebrate excellence and embrace the idea that post-graduate education will take us places an ordinary degree cannot. Start early, and ensure most Canadians are literate, that education is reasserted as a family, community and national value. Have the vision to understand that we must support high-quality basic research if we are to be incubators of creativity. Successive federal governments over the last decade, along with several provinces, have made strong inroads in this regard and the underfunding of the mid-1990s is being redressed.

This is a strong and unifying call to build solid foundations for our science and research policy. Unfortunately, the potential for partisanship and politicization has increasingly threatened sound policy. Monroe-Blum’s call for widespread participation in shaping a shared vision of science and research in this country is accompanied by a plea to remove the petty politics which drive so much debate over Canadian policy:

What is missing now is a national commitment to depoliticize this fundamental area. No other modern jurisdiction subjects its development of sustained and effective investment in research and scholarship to the vicissitudes of politics and government transition that Canada and its provinces seem to thrive on. This brings about stuttering uncertainty.

As Monroe-Blum urges, we should all – politicians, scientists, and political commentators alike – seek to put aside our political differences in the interest of building a stronger and more successful Canada.

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