Focal Point Canada - the S&T Policy of the United States' Northern Neighbor

bridges vol. 21, April 2009 / Feature Articles

By Caroline Adenberger

It has been exactly five years since bridges' last in-depth report on S&T policy in Canada in its 2004 article "Science & Technology Policy North of the Niagara Falls ." Meanwhile, much has changed: Two years after the article, in the federal elections of 2006, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper defeated then-Prime Minister Paul Martin and formed a minority government, putting an end to more than 12 years of liberal rule.

With the new conservative government came also changes for Canadian S&T policy: The position of the independent, nonpartisan advisor to the prime minister on science and technology, introduced in 2004, was abolished in January 2008 after the Harper administration formed an 18-member Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) in 2007. With the formation of the STIC, the position of the science advisor obviously became obsolete. Interestingly, though, immediately after the elections in 2006 Harper had already moved Arthur Carty, a chemist by training and previous president of the National Research Council Canada who was appointed first Canadian S&T advisor, from the prime minister's office to office space located at Industry Canada; there he reported to the minister of industry instead of reporting directly to the prime minister.

However, it should be clarified that, from the very start, success for the S&T advisor's office was rather unlikely due to a poorly defined mandate and - as so often with such appointments - because the funding made available was inadequate for the operations of such an office. Carter's budget, including salaries, is said to have been only Can $1 million, and with no permanent staff to support him with his tasks until his third year on the job.

Now the STIC has taken over providing policy advice to the government and reporting on Canada's S&T performance. Some say that having an 18-member council provides even better advice than a single person, especially since many members of the STIC are renowned scientists and entrepreneurs.  Others, however, have aired their fear that the council lacks independence and even objectivity in its advice, since government administrators occupy several seats on the council.

According to an article in Nature magazine published last December, many Canadian scientists have complained about the way science has been treated under Harper. In the lead-up to the October 2008 election, they rallied against the Conservative government by issuing two letters of protest. One called for politicians to crack down on greenhouse-gas emissions, the other for an end to the mistreatment and politicization of science. "While science is not the only factor to be considered in political decision making, ignoring and subverting science and scientific processes is unacceptable," said the October 8 letter, which was signed by 85 scientists and addressed to the five party leaders.



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Canada's First Minister for Science & Technology


Another noteworthy development has been the appointment of Canada's first minister for Science & Technology in October 2008. Harper created this new junior cabinet position within the department of industry, and it is currently occupied by Gary Goodyear , who holds degrees in biomechanics and psychology, and chiropractics. He reports to the Parliament on the activities of the Natural Sciences and Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and he is responsible for their budgets, although grants are awarded by peer review. Goodyear is also responsible for implementation of the Canadian Science and Technology Strategy , released in May 2007.

Goodyear has been in the headlines a good deal recently - although not intentionally. First, in early March of this year, he apparently stormed out of a meeting with representatives from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a lobby group representing 65,000 academic staffers at 121 universities and colleges. According to reports in the Toronto-based newspaper Globe and Mail, heated discussion on the 2009 budget involved whether the budget gave to much priority - and money - to university infrastructure, thereby neglecting operational research funding.

Similar concerns have been articulated by respected leaders in the Canadian research community such as the former S&T advisor Arthur Carty - now head of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. While applauding the government's investments in laboratory infrastructure, he raised grave concerns about the Harper government's approach to basic research and the support it lends to scientists, saying that "there is a lack of understanding of how scientific research works."

Goodyear was caught again in media crossfire on March 17, when a statement of his on evolution caused a national tempest in a teapot. His scientific credentials were heavily discussed and called into question by the scientific community and political opponents because he didn't want to answer the question as to whether he believed in evolution. Goodyear clarified in a later interview on the same day that he does accept evolution but didn't answer because he felt this was not a relevant question to ask;  but for several days, national newspapers and magazines discussed his statement at length.

Show Me the Money

The 2009 Canadian R&D budget faces the current economic downturn by injecting some Can $3.5 billion in new money into S&T. One might assume that this would be most welcome to the research community; but alas, it has caused quite an outcry among scientists and sparked heavy criticism. The reason is that those infrastructure investments are overshadowed by cuts to the major grant-funding programs in Canada's federal budget. Much of the worry has centered on the effects of those cuts on the three granting councils - the NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC - which were told to scale back their collective budget by Can $147.9 million (US $120 million) over the next three years, during what is called a "strategic review." It is the first time in recent memory that the councils were not even granted an increase to cover inflation. The funding directed their way was specifically devoted to a temporary increase in support for the Canada Graduate Scholarships - Can $87.5 million over the next three years subject to a 40-40-20 split among the three agencies. For SSHRC, the 20 percent even came with a clear directive attached: The funds must be spent only on business-related degrees.

Observers within Canada and also from abroad have cautioned that such a lack of support for scientists could trigger a damaging brain drain. Especially considering the huge R&D stimulus package in the United States, some argue that Canadian researchers might simply take their research south of the border.

Altogether, within the Can $40 billion (US $32.3 billion) stimulus budget released in January, Harper promised Can $2 billion to post-secondary institutions to repair and expand their facilities; approximately Can $1.3 billion will go to universities to upgrade and improve their laboratories and other research facilities. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, which is the main body for funding infrastructure projects in Canada, received an additional Can $750 million. See the following table for detailed information on the 2009 budget:

canada_budget_breakdown_table_small.jpg




The Science Technology Strategy of May 2007

When Prime Minister Harper released Canada's new national science and technology (S&T) strategy "Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage " about two years ago, he identified more private research and development as a key to strengthening Canada's economy. He noted that the new strategy was designed to boost private sector investment in research and development and enrollment in university science and engineering programs. "Building up our science and technology assets and expertise is as important to the economic future of Canada as the development of our physical infrastructure," he said. The strategy focused federal support for research and development in four key areas: natural resources, the environment, health, and information technology.  

With the advice of the STIC, in September 2008 the implementation of two new programs that aim to position Canada as a global center of excellence in research and education were announced to complement the S&T strategy:  the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship Program (Vanier CGS). The CERC program will award 20 Chair holders and their research teams with up to Can $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities. When fully operational, the Vanier CGS Program will support 500 Canadian and international doctoral students each year with three-year scholarships valued at up to Can $50,000 per annum.

Both the CERC, following the successful example of the Canada Research Chair Program (more than 2000 research chair positions are held in all disciplines across Canada by now) and the Vanier CGS are certainly useful tools for attracting established researchers as well as promising young scientists. However, as Carty recently stated in an interview with The Ottawa Citizen, Canada has done very well in the last five or six years in bringing in some bright minds from the United States. But with the US now beginning to pour money into science, Canada had better watch out. "When your nearest neighbor has decided to turn things around and invest heavily in science and research, it is possible that some people will see that the sunshine is on the other side of the fence," says Carty.

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The author, Caroline Adenberger, is the editor of bridges and the deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.



References
:

"Canadian Science Minister Under Fire." Nature 458, no. 393 (2009).  Published online on March 25, 2009 (retrieved on April 7, 2009).

"Cash Concern for Canadian Scientists." Nature 457, no. 646 (2009).  Published online on February 4, 2009 (retrieved on April 8, 2009).

"Granting Council Hardest Hit - Details of Strategic Review Reveal Extent of Cuts to Agency Research Budgets."  Re$earch Money  vol. 23, no. 3., February 27,  2009.

"Is Gary Goodyear Fair Game?" The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2009.  

"Science in Retreat." Nature Editorial. Nature  451, no. 7181 (2008): 866. doi:10.1038/451866a.

Steger, Philipp. "Science & Technology Policy North of the Niagara Falls." 

bridges, 2004. <http://www.ostina.org/content/view/470 />. (retrieved on April 4, 2009).

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