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Science Policy from Europe

December 1, 2009

Today, two stories from Europe.

First, science policy took centre stage in the UK recently, with a public debate on science policy involving representatives of all three mainstream British political parties participating. A “packed audience” at Cambridge University witnessed the event, where the parties’ spokesmen addressed the major issues facing British science: future funding levels (the future of the funding “ring-fence” around science), how to decide which projects get funded (the so-called Haldane principle, which says researchers should decide, not politicians), whether research money should increasingly go towards “targeted research” (in Canada, we prefer the euphemism “innovation”), and a few distinctly British issues, including the lobbying of the BBC for more sexy science dramas (actually, that sort of ridiculous idea is the sort of thing Canadian politicians would suggest).

What’s most shocking and strange about this isn’t so much the substance as the event itself. Can you imagine Canadian political representatives having a debate about the role of science in Canadian policy? No, probably not. I mean, all the political parties had a perfect opportunity to distinguish themselves and mark their commitment to science by participating in the Canadian Science Policy Conference last month. Did they? No. Minister Goodyear showed up and gave a 20-minute  boilerplate speech where, after describing his government’s hazy and general position on science (“we’re really for it“), he literally asked for suggestions from the audience.

When the election comes – and if the Liberals ever manage to get themselves in order, it will come – scientists will demand to know where the parties stand. For too long, science policy has been an afterthought – will any of the parties make science a full ministry, instead of a subsection of the Industry portfolio? Are any of the parties willing to go beyond simple platitudes and show real vision for science policy in this country? How will we know?


The second piece of news from Europe hails from France, and is of interest because of its echoes of the much maligned “G5” proposal that got so many Canadian academics in a lather this summer.

Two weeks ago, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy received a recommendation for a “Big Loan” of €35-billion ($52-billion US), much of which is to be spent on R&D and higher education. The staggering numbers are raising eyebrows, especially given that much of the world seems to have moved from stimulus to debt concern (note: I think what is more staggering is that in French politics, before taking out a loan they commission a study and then debate its recommendations instead of just making interminable spending annoucements and then bundling them into a “deficit”, as though we didn’t realize we’d have to actually borrow the money until after fact).

The most interesting part of the announcement, though, is contained in the detailed recommendations for spending. Of the €16-billion recommended for higher education and research institutions, €10-billion is recommended for an endowment fund, with the endowment income dedicated to additional funding for the top 5-10 universities. This would provide these schools with an independent and ongoing source of funds, akin to the American model. According to Reuters:

Selon des membres de cette commission chargée de réfléchir à l’usage du “grand emprunt” annoncé par le chef de l’Etat, elle recommande dans son rapport de consacrer quelque 16 milliards d’euros à l’enseignement supérieur et la recherche. Sur ces 16 milliards, dix serviraient à doter les cinq à dix meilleures universités françaises d’un capital dont elles n’utiliseront que les revenus, sur le modèle américain.

If Canada’s top research universities are finding it hard to compete internationally, and need increased funding to be among the world’s elite, perhaps something akin to the Sarkozy model is more appropriate than simply favoring the universities in general funding competitions. Finding a way to allocate endowment proceeds would be complicated, but the endowment fund would provide a relatively stable – well not stable, but at least politically independent – source of funding. The recipients could be reevaluated periodically, thus allowing for continued competition and change at the top.

On second thought, forget it. It would never fly.


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