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This government 17 times more committed to science

May 19, 2009

(with thanks to Jim for bringing it to my attention…)

Last week, in the sleepy second house that is the Senate, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton stood and delivered a passionate defense of the current government’s science and research policy. Her fiery speech, as noted by the Liberals, was a bit defensive, as she lashed out at critics who have decried the policy decisions of the Harper conservatives (including the “biased” Globe and Mail, which she refers to twice). Ms. LeBreton repeated many of the government’s talking points, fleshing them out with specific examples here and there. Here are a few highlights from her speech:

Honourable senators, let me state, without equivocation, that the government values and supports technology, and that we are not engaging in some Orwellian conspiracy to direct the content of scientific research. Contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition has suggested, we are not attempting to muzzle scientists. Honourable senators, the opposite has been occurring. Scientists have praised this government’s actions and spending announcements…

For the sake of researchers and scientists, but also for the sake of a corrected record, I want to address my honourable colleague’s remarks, in case Canadians start listening and believing the Liberal spin and think Canada’s science and research community is on its way back to the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t the Liberals who alerted the scientific community to concerns with government science policy, but rather the other way around.

LeBreton counters criticism the government received for eliminating the position of National Science Advisor.

Where the previous government had one science adviser, we created a Science Technology and Innovation Council consisting of 17 members to advise the government on matters of science and technology policy

Wow. The previous government only had one advisor. This government has SEVENTEEN! Now that’s a generous commitment to science. Of course, the members of the council are busy people, which may explain why they have only had time for two announcements since the council was formed almost two years ago. The “one science advisor” was a dedicated, high-level office dedicated to providing the government with ongoing science advice – the council is made up of part-time consultants, highly respected ones no doubt, who meet on specific issues. It’s a question of quality, not quantity. Ms. LeBreton continues:

The honourable senator points out the three granting research councils — Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Research Council and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — are victims of cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The government has provided significant new funding to the granting councils for their core programming in each of the last three budgets.

This is the sort of political hair-splitting that will get scientists in trouble in these debates…

Surprisingly, Liberal Senator Art Eggleton struck a conciliatory tone and captured, I think, what a lot of scientists are feeling in the face of the Conservative backlash to the policy criticism:

I am sorry that the Leader of the Government in the Senate has been so defensive about this matter. This side has not been crying doom and gloom… What we said then and what we are saying today is that there are gaps. Not everything has been addressed. It is not a question of throwing more money at more things; it is a question of finding the right balance and dealing with these gaps to ensure that we move forward with the best possible science and technology policy… It is important for our future prosperity and economy that we look at what these gaps are and the challenges we face…

The fact is that in the current year there will be an administrative cut of $149 million, which appears to be part of an across-the-board measure applied here as well. It may not be extremely damaging to the bottom line of these granting councils, considering the previous years’ increases, but it sends the wrong message at the wrong time. It creates a chill in the science community by suggesting we are slowing down and cutting back at a time when, in the United States, they are adding significantly more dollars into research as part of their stimulus endeavour.

The government should be given credit for the money that it has invested in the infrastructure program for science as part of the stimulus, but it still needs to pay more attention to the operating funds, the funds necessary for scientists to carry out the programs in these facilities. There is no point in upgrading all these facilities if they are not pumping money into the operating costs for the scientists to use them to develop the kind of research that will to lead to new products for our economy.

It is unfortunate that this information is looked upon as an attack by us or as a preaching of doom and gloom. Instead, we are saying the government has done some things that are going in the right direction, but there are gaps. There needs to be improvement. Do not let down your guard. Address these gaps because it is vital to address them, in terms of our economic future and our quality of life in this country; that we keep apace in terms of research and development.

Very well said – I believe it is important to continue to emphasize that the research community is not “at war” with the government, or “attacking” the government, since this implies a simple political battle. This is about the discussion of ideas, we need to remain above petty politics, and we shall strive to work constructively with whatever party forms the government.

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