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Government releases progress report on science strategy

June 10, 2009

The government’s science and technology strategy was outlined in a 2007 document, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage. This week, the government released a two-year progress report. The report reads essentially as a summary of government activities during the last two years, and is, not surprisingly, unrelentingly positive about the government’s progress. Unfortunately, it absolutely ignores the concerns raised by researchers and observers across the country, missing a perfect opportunity to explain controversial decisions. The result is instead a simple propaganda piece whose patent refusal to address concerns of the research community demonstrates the government’s hubris and condescension towards Canadian researchers.

For instance, the report glosses over controversial decisions, such as the cuts to funding for granting agencies in the most recent budget. The report’s summary on the granting councils details actions taken in the 2007 and 2008 budgets but says nothing about the 2009 budget where their funding was cut. If these cuts reflect an element of the government’s science and technology strategy, then surely this report would be a perfect place to explain how they fit within the government’s framework. 

The section about Genome Canada demonstrates even greater political salesmanship. Funding for Genome Canada was omitted altogether from Budget 2009. In ther report, the government adopts the position that omitting Genome Canada from funding did not represent a cut to its budget, but rather that the government’s decisions over the last three years have “placed Canada at the forefront of genomics research”: “Budget 2007 provided $100 million, and Budget 2008 provided an additional $140 million, to Genome Canada… This brings the total investment up to $840 million and will allow Genome Canada to operate through 2012–13.” Instead of providing a justification or description of why this decision was made, the government uses total investments (including pre-2007 money) and length of previously awarded grants to obscure and obfuscate the fact that the government has now given what amounts to an “end date” for Genome Canada. But the government doesn’t seem to feel that a justification is either needed or deserved. 

The report also addresses the innovation debate that has lately consumed much of the science policy debate. The report steers clear of some of the criticisms of the recent STIC report, instead focusing on the efforts the government has made to improve the investment environment and tax system. Extensive descriptions of various new or expanded tax credits are provided, but the suggestions from STIC and other recent reports that tax credits are far inferior to direct investment are not addressed.

Indeed, this report seems not to be influenced at all by the closely related STIC report, which is odd. This report outlines the actions taken by government and simply describes the expected (or desired, rather) outcomes. The STIC report, on the other hand, describes the science and research situation as it exists. Thus, this report’s language is filled with hopes for the future: “The legislative changes will boost Canada’s competitiveness, stimulate investment, protect consumers and safeguard Canada’s national security… Together, these changes will encourage Canadian technology-based firms to innovate, prosper and grow.” The report doesn’t address the underlying problem identified by the STIC report or a similar report from the Council of Canadian Academies, simply noting at the end of one section: “The report[s] examines Canada’s weakness in productivity growth and suggests that it is due to business strategy choices.”

There are many positive elements captured in the document. Investments in CFI and infrastructure spending are trumpeted, and the success of the Centres of Excellence program is discussed in detail. The positive effects of the Vanier Scholarships and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program are also noted. Unfortunately, the report relies entirely on what the government is doing, and not much is said about outcomes. I understand two years is a short time in science, but it leaves the report as a laundry list of spending items with pure speculation that these spending decisions will generate the desired outcomes.

Ultimately, the document is undermined by its unwavering positive attitude towards government decisions. In the section on modernizing management, for instance, the creation of the STIC advisory body is trumpeted as a means of providing sound external advice to the government. No mention, however, is made of the elimination of the office of the Science Advisor. Again, this document is a perfect opportunity to place the government’s reasoning and justification on the record. Instead, the government is either pretending it didn’t happen, or else is so arrogant as to believe it doesn’t need to justify its decisions publicly.

Given the obvious omissions of unpopular government decisions, it is hard to read the document as anything more than simple propaganda, cheerleading for the government. Too bad, because I think a lot of scientists are willing to listen and consider the reasoning behind government actions. This government, however, seems patently unable to justify its decisions in the face of criticism, to engage with citizens and be open about decisions. The government has missed a real opportunity here to alleviate much of the controversy about recent science policy decisions. This document absolutely ignores the concerns raised publicly by researchers across the country, and implies that the government doesn’t care a whit about the research community’s opinions.

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