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The year ahead in Canadian science policy

August 31, 2010

Though the heat and humidity remains at mid-summer levels here in Ottawa, my summer’s over and I’m back in the blogging saddle, ready to tackle exciting science policy developments in the year ahead. Here, boldly (and gimmickly)  are my three predictions for the coming year:

1. The Harper government will continue its love-hate relationship with science policy. We will continue to see very public announcements of impressive sums of money for research projects, each trumpeted as definitive and final proof that this government loves and supports science and research. At the same time, the government will continue to undermine principles of science-based policy development.

See, science policy has both push and pull components. The push side involves government funding of research; the pull side involves implementing research results in evidence-based policy development. Governments love the former because they control the message. Governments dislike the latter, because political or ideological goals become secondary. As I wrote earlier this summer, evidence and data are anathema to the “epistemological populism” favored by this government, in particular (see Paul Saurette’s wonderful article here). Arguing with data is challenging and politically costly. It is much easier to simply eliminate or undermine the data. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census is the most glaring (and boldest) example of this strategy, though not the only one (see also closing the Office of the National Science Advisor, eliminating an access to information database used for statistical and historical  research on document requests, the firing of Linda Keen as President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, etc).

Funding research while ignoring its results in formulating policy is a “do as I say, not as I do” strategy which, as any parent can tell you, doesn’t work.

2. We will declare that we are lagging in innovation, lament that nothing has been done about it, and write innumerable opinion pieces about how to fix the problem. This prediction is simply based on projecting from past experience.

The University of Toronto’s one-man innovation op-ed machine, president David Naylor, contributed another entry this week (with UBC’s Stephen Toope). The article is significant, not least for its use of the word “nostrum” in both the title and the article which, you have to admit, is an awfully innovative word.

(Full disclosure – I plan to do much blogging this year about innovation and how to improve it, but will try to focus on programs that are making real efforts at tackling the problem.)

3. Grizzly bear research will enter a decade-long period of ineptitude. Apparently, Mats Sundin has taken an interest in UofAlberta researcher Gordon Stenhouse’s grizzly research project – the collaboration between the former Toronto Maple Leafs captain and Stenhouse, an Edmonton Oilers fan, will almost certainly mean they’ll miss publishing for each of the next five research seasons, leaving grizzly fans bitter and jealous of other, more successful bears.

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