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Nature editorial slams Canadian science policy

January 14, 2010

“Canada needs a bigger vision of where its science is going”, according to an editorial published today in the British journal Nature. I strongly suggest you read it. It’s not flattering.

The journal acknowledges the strength of Canadian academic research (“a powerhouse of academic science”), but laments government policy which does nothing to support or use this strength. Recent failings of Canadian science policy are enumerated, and reasons for such weak policy are suggested. Finally, since “muddling along isn’t good enough in today’s economic climate”, the journal calls for a strengthened science policy, a greater vision, and a champion in government who can safeguard this vision:

Whatever the reasons, Canada is failing to make the most of a key national resource. Everyone involved needs to take responsibility. The government should designate a single person to be held accountable for science — either a chief adviser or a fully fledged minister with sufficient power and initiative to set a strong national agenda. Researchers, meanwhile, should find more effective ways of working together and making their voices heard, including becoming part of the political system themselves.

A cabinet shuffle is widely anticipated during Parliament’s prorogation. Stephen Harper and the PMO could demonstrate to Canadians and the international community, which is clearly paying attention, that Canadian science and innovation as a central role in our economy by promoting the position of science minister from a junior minister of state within the Industry portfolio to a fully-fledged senior cabinet position. This ministry would allow for stronger and more focused policy development, with the emphasis on sound science and not the economic goals of the Industry Minster.  This move would demonstrate to Canadians – and the international community – that our government is serious about making science and innovation cornerstones of the Canadian economy.

Science policy stakeholders have long argued that we need stronger science policy in this country. Too often, these calls have simply been general calls for increased funding for specific areas. These calls, while justifiable, too often conflict with similar calls from other stakeholders, and are thus easily dismissed or answered by ad hoc government responses disconnected from a strong policy vision.

Researchers need to stop working at cross-purposes and instead combine their voices to push for a single, achievable goal that will have tangible benefits. The creation of a senior ministry dedicated to science and technology will ensure that researchers have an ear at the cabinet table and a strong voice for research at the highest levels of government.  To build a stronger science policy, scientists first need to strengthen our political representation.

And the government should be receptive to such a call. The promotion of a minister of state to a senior ministry would be fairly straightforward. It will also reap immense benefits to our scientific reputation nationally and internationally, at low economic and political cost. Furthermore, the establishment of such a ministry would signal to international investors that Canada is actually serious about placing innovation and new ideas at the fore of economic recovery.

Our international reputation is key to attracting talent and investment. Research and innovation is international in scope, and the further behind we fall, the more we doom ourselves to forever being “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, watching as more dynamic nations pass us by.

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