Liberal government’s track record on science put under the spotlight

By Mark Henderson

No assessment of the Liberal track record on science and innovation during its first two years in power would be complete without a discussion of the impact and potential implications of the Naylor report. And that’s precisely what occurred when a panel including Dr David Naylor convened to examine whether the government is making significant progress on its vision for Canadian science.

Held in Ottawa on October 23 by Evidence for Democracy (E4D) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), panelists contended that initial moves to unmuzzle scientists, appoint a Science minister and bureaucratically place innovation, science and economic development in a single department, while welcome, don’t go nearly far enough in igniting the knowledge-based and traditional economies.

“It’s a nice start,” said Dr. Brenda Austin-Smith, CAUT VP and professor of cinema at the Univ of Manitoba. “The government has not done enough on the funding of open research. There’s been a flatlining of granting council funds, especially open research.”

The research community is hoping that the release and enthusiastic reception of the Naylor Report — which its author prefers to call the Fundamental Science Review (FSR) Report — will push the Liberal administration much further, boosting the budgets of the granting councils and enacting many if not all of the report’s 35 recommendations.

Dr Jeremy Kerr, a professor of biology at the Univ of Ottawa, said the collective agreement with federal scientists (including a clause dealing with the right of members to speak about their science and research without censure) is another deliverable on what he characterizes as a series of modest science-focused promises, as is a strong emphasis on inclusion and diversity and a reinvigoration of the National Research Council.

Kerr called the FSR Report’s sweeping recommendations “unprecedented” and urged the government to make dramatic changes to the funding system for research, calling on researchers to collectively advocate in a more cohesive, positive way without coming across as whining or entitled.

Naylor described the reaction to the FSR Report as “astonishing and very gratifying” and urged the research community to keep up the pressure if the government doesn’t deliver on the recommendations in the near term.

“You need to develop a permanent campaign mode,” said Naylor, adding that it’s difficult to say whether the Liberals are delivering on their vision for science because they “never had a vision”.

“A permanent campaign mode is a great idea,” said Austin-Smith. “The social sciences and humanities talk a lot to each other (and) all disciplines embraced the (FSR) report … It addressed all our concerns and became a good communications tool. It’s a wonderful campaign document.”

Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells, who has followed Canadian S&T policy for more than 20 years, said there’s a deepening misunderstanding between the Liberals and the research community and that the debate over pure versus applied research as analyzed in the FSR Report is “esoteric and confusing” to most politicians. He added that the electoral disaster that befell the Liberals following the sponsorship scandal ushered in an era of excessive accountability. He pointed to the $950-million Innovation Superclusters Initiative and said it “scares” federal bureaucrats and that more funding requests for science and research will be “viewed dimly”.

Wells also urged groups who insist on linking science and innovation to abandon their efforts immediately.

“Shut it down, stop saying it because it’s toxic,” said Wells.

 

Science policy & science politics panel

– – – “Is the government delivering on its vision to rebuild science?” – – –

Dr David Naylor
Medical researcher and former president of the Univ of Toronto

Paul Wells
Journalist

Dr Brenda Austin-Smith
Vice-President of CAUT & professor of cinema at the Univ of Manitoba

Jeremy Kerr
Professor of biology at the Univ of Ottawa

Moderator: Dr Monica Gattinger
Director of the Univ of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy

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