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Canada Science Policy Conference, Day 1

October 28, 2009

Greetings from Toronto. I’m at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, which got under way this evening. I arrived five minutes before the opening session (thanks to Via Rail for sitting on the tracks for 45 minutes somewhere around Brockville…) to a huge crowd at the registration desk. When the conference first came to my attention in the spring, I had no idea it would garner the attention and attendance it has. Over the next three days, more than 60 speakers will be addressing more than 350 delegates on a variety of topics related to science policy. Judging from the number of suits I saw, I suspect the delegates are largely made up of government and industry types, though maybe academic researchers in Toronto are just better dressed than I’m used to.

The conference opened with Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation John Milloy. He spoke about Ontario’s commitment to leading Canada’s emerging innovation economy – he pointed out that Ontario is the only province with a stand-alone ministry dedicated to research and innovation and cited his government’s $3.2-billion investment inits so-called “Innovation Agenda”. He also voiced support for a national strategy of research and innovation, and cited an upcoming meeting in Edmonton of Provincial and Territorial representatives where strategies for cooperation and collaboration in research and technology can be discussed. He told the assembled delegates that a truly national strategy will be impossible without participation by the federal government, and mentioned (none-too-subtly) that the feds have been invited but haven’t yet indicated they’d come. Judging by the number of federal bureaucrats in attendance, I’m sure the message will get back to Ottawa.

Whereas Minister Milloy delivered a government perspective (read basic boilerplate), the second speaker provided a different take on the role of science in shaping policy. Bruce Alberts is an eminent scientist and editor in chief of Science magazine. More relevantly, he also served as President of the National Academy of Sciences in the US – an advisory body chartered to provide independent scientific advice to the US government. His speech was unfortunately broad, and didn’t really provide much information relevant to the debate currently ongoing here. His speech did, however, raise several interesting points.

First, he repeatedly emphasized the rise of China and the very prominent role being played by science and scientists in the Chinese government. “If you want your government interested in science and technology, send them to China”, he quipped. He pointed out that the Chinese Minister of Health, Chen Zhu, is a world-renowned molecular biologist who is reshaping his country’s health ministry and is employing many of the tools that served him well as a scientist. Alberts suggested that China’s embrace of science and its methods, the number of scientists and engineers in top roles in the Chinese government, and the role science is playing in the emerging Chinese economy, can’t help but convince other countries of its benefits – I’m not so sure…

Alberts also argued that to spread science in society, you need to spread scientists. Too few trained scientists – at the PhD level, he argued – enter other areas of society. Only by having trained scientists working as lawyers, journalists, and – especially – in government, can we expect science to play a broader role in society at large. Indeed, the inability to speak each others’ language is a major barrier to increased collaboration between government and scientists. To address this, the National Academies in the US has instituted fellowships for junior and training scientists to act as interns in Washington – to gain experience in how government works so that they can go back and be better advocates for scientists in general.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about Alberts’ talk, in my opinion, was to see how much more a prominent role science plays in American policy making. The National Academies have 1100 employees and more than 6000 academics who volunteer to serve on committees to investigate and report on questions their federal government may ask. The National Academies were created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and their independent role is outlined in their charter:

[T]he Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art, the actual expense of such investigations, examinations, experiments, and reports to be paid from appropriations which may be made for the purpose, but the Academy shall receive no compensation whatever for any services to the Government of the United States.

Canada has no such institutions. Our “advisory councils” are ad hoc affairs that meet irregularly and rarely issue public reports. As Alberts also pointed out, successful policy requires strong institutions – and scientific advisory boards in Canada are anything but strong. Alberts’ description of the role played by the National Academies was a powerful illustration of how government and scientists can work together to promote sound science policy. Perhaps a Canadian government will be inspired enough to emulate the model.

ps. If you’re interested in live tweeting from the conference, check out Jeremy Grushcow’s twitter feed (crossborderbio). I tried, and will try again, to post a few tweets during the talks, but he has fingers like lightning and gives a good sense of what’s going on. He’s also providing reports on his blog, Cross-Border Biotech.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    October 29, 2009 08:45

    Are you wearing a suit? Believe me, researchers in Toronto do not! Suggests the attendees are primarily bureaucrats, which is unfortunate since the mess we are in is in large part due to the disconnect between actual scientists and the people who control and distribute the funding. There needs to be communication between these groups, not dictation. It also looks like the agenda for the CPSC is primarily to obtaining funding for policy wonks. Such vested interest is not a good way to make progress on bridging the gap. Perhaps the real issue is that scientists no longer have time for policy and, instead, are focussed on the necessity to write endless grant applications for programs dreamt up in Ottawa?

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