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2009 – a look back at science policy

January 4, 2010

Happy New Year, everyone. Like so many others, I’ve emerged from holiday exile and am back at it today, ready to bid farewell to 2009 and engage with what will surely be an eventful 2010. Despite the general quiet of the holiday season, a number of relevant science policy issues are sitting on my desk, begging for my attention – NSERC’s new Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation, the OECD’s 2009 Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard, a ream of funding announcements… I’ll get into these gradually over the next couple of weeks.

To ease us back into it, though, I provide to you a brief look back at 2009. Tomorrow, I’ll have a look at what to expect in 2010.

There were a number of issues in science policy in 2009. The January budget spurred a wide-ranging debate about the role of science policy in Canada, with front-page coverage in national newspapers and the initiation of a campaign (which continues to grow…) to ensure that Canadian research plays a strong and central role in the developing economy. The reactions from various sources touched off a strong and vigorous debate that continued throughout the year. There were controversies aplenty: the controversial difference between Canadian and US research funding models, a controversial change in CIHR’s strategic plan, the controversy about distinguishing Canada’s so-called “G5” set of elite universities, to controversies involving the Minister of Science, etc. Gary Goodyear. The inaugural Science Policy Conference was successfully held in Toronto, and captured a prevailing sentiment that science policy in Canada is on the upswing. The conference addressed an issue that dominated the question of science policy goals in 2009: the lack of Canadian innovation. At year’s end, everyone agrees there’s a problem but no one has any solutions, despite high profile reports from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the Council of Canadian Academies.

But the main story of 2009 was surely the global economic recession and the resultant flow of government stimulus spending. The bulk of spending for Canadian research was directed through the Knowledge Infrastructure Program, a $2-billion fund that was designed to increase the R&D capacity for Canadian researchers. Though the fund was touted as an example of the government’s commitment to research and was widely supported by university administrators keen for building upgrades, many Canadian researchers lamented the lack of support for actual research. Indeed, the fund was primarily for construction and maintenance, and inclusion of projects such as cafeteria upgrades made many raise their eyebrows at claims that the fund was “supporting research”. Skepticism was supported by the observation that the 2009 budget projected cuts in the budgets of the tricouncil funding agencies, and eliminated any new funding for Genome Canada. Certainly, the research community ended 2009 with ambivalence – hopeful insofar as the government has been a vocal supporter of research and innovation, but uncertain about what precisely the government means by “research and innovation”.

So here we find ourselves, at the beginning of a new year. In 2009, science policy was buffeted by political squalls and economic storms, with attendant ups and downs. 2010, however, may shape up to be a perfect storm of political and economic forces – with a bare-knuckle election expected as early as the spring and with the stimulus chickens coming home to roost in the country’s first deficit-fighting budget in more than a decade. Tomorrow, we’ll look forward to the year ahead.

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