Friday, January 15, 2010

Where is the Political Leadership on Canada's Vision of Science?

This lead editorial in the latest issue of Nature is apt. A sample:

Canada is in many ways a powerhouse of academic science: its university researchers are prolific publishers and strong contributors to the national research and development enterprise. Yet Canadian government policy does far too little to support and utilize this strength.

....More generally, Canada has no group comparable to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the United States for focusing attention on science policy. Lobbying of the government bodies that have power over science is fragmented. And Canada has nothing comparable to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is headed by a science adviser who reports directly to the US president. Canada did have a science adviser to the prime minister during 2004–08, but he was largely sidelined before the position was terminated. (There is currently only a 'minister of state' for science and technology, a junior post that lies within the industry ministry.) The council that replaced the science adviser is entirely reactive to government queries, and produces reports that traditionally are not made public.

....Some critics say Canada has no science policy at all. Others say it has unwritten laws that seem to let it muddle along. But muddling along isn't good enough in today's tough economic climate. Canada needs a bigger vision of where its science is going: a vision informed by organized scientists, and voiced by a strong position in government.

The editorial suggests that the fact that Canada is so big but the population so small is perhaps part of the explanation for this situation. But I would lay a large part of the blame on Canadian academics. Recall this editorial from last month about the divide between the social and natural sciences. How many undergraduates in political science, for example, finish their degree with a solid understanding of the importance of science, and sound science policy, for society?

What makes this problem a particularly acute problem is the fact that the greatest challenges our societies face this century are ones that will require advances in science in order to address them. If we want to help create a vision of science in Canadian society we need to start by critical examining the culture of higher education.