Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2010

Little Accomplished at Science Conference

A session entitled “Who Speaks for Science?” best captured the essence of the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto in October 2009. I was among more than 300 attendees who heard high-profile participants talk science policy in Canada. The conference talks can be found at

In the opening plenary, titled “Canada’s National Science and Technology Strategy,” McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum spoke directly to Canada’s deficit in productivity, which became one strand of a central argument at the conference.

Despite the deficit, she argued that Canada is well positioned to achieve success on a world stage if we can bring government together with business and universities. The current practice of awarding research funds on the basis of peer-evaluated merit, however, constrains us in competing for the “very best.”

Alain Beaudet, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, also spoke to the pursuit of excellence. He noted that although Canada compares favourably to other OECD countries in the health research domain, we fall short in achieving Nobel prizes and award too few PhDs. Like Munroe-Blum, he cautioned against spreading investments thinly, something which has led CIHR to revise its peer review process to ensure competitions are internationally competitive. Notably, Beaudet was one of the few speakers to argue for a focus on basic science, observing that “all the rest comes from it.”

A plenary session on the Canadian economy developed a second strand of consensus at the conference, that research spending should focus on “innovation.” As used by conference speakers, innovation appeared synonymous with the use of science to address the needs of the economy — and even of specific business interests, or what is often called “commercialization.” Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, highlighted the importance of the innovation stra­tegy in policymaking.

Suzanne Fortier, president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, then told the audience the Canadian system is “stuck in low gear when it comes to innovation.” NSERC, she said, would soon present a model designed to “change the innovation landscape” through partnerships with the private sector. She noted the importance of delivering research products in a timely manner and finding ways to get research to the market faster.

Peter Nicholson, president of the Council of Canadian Academies, advocated the need for more business innovation if Canada is to move toward a knowledge economy. Canada’s productivity lags because of weak business innovation, he said. Businesses in Canada have had relatively little motivation to innovate because they have remained profitable despite their lack of investment in research and development — an argument about branch plant manufacturing and the reliance on resource extraction that goes back to 1960s economic nationalism. Science policy, he suggested, should focus on the new generation of business leaders and on funding start-ups based on commercially promising research.

A surreal moment at the conference was the standing ovation for Reform Party founder Preston Manning, who gave a keynote address. Manning has become a frequent speaker on science and technology issues. If science is to gain a higher profile at the federal level, he argued, there must be more “science receptive people” in Parliament, which requires encouraging scientists to run for public office. (He referred to the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, an institute he founded, to promote the infusion of scientists into government). Manning challenged scientists to bridge the communication gap between federal decision-makers and scientific professionals. He recommended establishing a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and emphasized the need to convince the business community to increase spending on research and development. As a way to promote private R&D he recommended that a private sector science policy think tank should be created — like his planned Centre for Innovation and Technology (take that Roger Martin!).

But despite the science policy framework, the conference was a disappointment to CAUT. There was no acknowledgment or discussion of the persistent underfunding of science, research and infrastructure. And there was virtually no discussion of the substance of science policy. The central concern was how to encourage business investment in research and development and how to foster collaboration between scientists and business. But concrete solutions were scarce.

Although funding for the three granting councils has been slashed by $148 million over the next three years, the granting agency presidents appear to be on side with the government’s push to strengthen ties between business and science, witness NSERC’s new strategy for Partnership and Innovation, which directs funds toward research that will support “company specific” programs.

CAUT has long opposed the trend towards targeting funds to areas that meet short term government priorities and in November, delegates to our Council meeting unanimously passed a resolution opposing the new strategy and programs.

This brings me back to the question of who speaks for science? At one time, it would have been the professional associations. In recent years this direct voice of science has been supplanted by the granting agencies, resting on their reputation of identifying the best research by peer review. Of course, this favoured capital intensive fields and, more broadly, science, engineering and medicine, with their much larger funding bases, over the humanities and social sciences.

A more insidious change, however, has been the increasing corporate representation on the policy-setting boards, beginning in the late 1990s and vastly accelerated by the current government.

Robert Mann, president of the Canadian Association of Physicists, argues that his association and other scientific societies can speak for scientists. Their financial dependence on membership dues in a relatively small nation, however, severely limits their ability to advocate effectively. And these associations are no match for the professional public relations operations of government, agencies and other sectors.

CAUT advocates and lobbies for a stronger financial commitment and for coherent policy initiatives. We need to persist in this endeavor.