Sunday, January 24, 2010

Policing Science Policy

I haven't been extremely generous in my estimation of how science has fared under our current government - I'm not a big fan of Gary Goodyear's take on evolution, his lack of research experience, or Harper's prioritization of science funding in the budget.

It was nice to feel supported in these opinions by an editorial in Nature last week, blasting the Conservative treatment of science from a policy perspective. Science sits in the portfolio of the Minister of State - Science and Technology, a junior cabinet position that reports to the Minister of Industry. The only contact the Prime Minister had with science was a National Science Advisor, a position he abolished two years ago.

The editorial calls for the establishment of a clear and progressive science policy, and I couldn't agree more. There are a number of reasons this hasn't happened yet. One of them is that Harper doesn't seem to care much about science, whether it's the application of basic health research findings into clinical practice or the models of environmental impact of the oil sands projects.

But I think that we, and by that I mean scientists, fail to give him reason to care. One of the things that the article mentions is the lack of a national organization for science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science predates Canada itself by almost 20 years; their publication, "Science," is one of the most respected journals in the world. Because of our Commonwealth status, British organizations like the Royal Society served this role early in our history. As a result, 142 (and a half) years after Confederation, we still have no equivalent unifying body in Canada.

Without any semblance of organization, the scientific community cannot even begin to think about influencing policy. We do not provide a national organization independent of government and funding agencies that takes official stances or even makes commentary on policy decisions. We don't have a publication in which we provide news about science and science policy or publish important research.

Science in Canada lacks organization, leadership, and vision. In this day and age, things like geography and multilingualism are no excuses. Until we establish a body representing the Canadian scientific community, we are naive to think that science will impact the way our government to behaves without a venue to provide recommendations on how to solve important scientific problems like we have at the Chalk River reactor.

It's long past time we caught up to the Americans - and virtually every other country in the world - in this respect. We are a country with a very strong research program, thousands of bright scientists at hundreds of institutes from coast to coast; we have internationally renowned universities and respected figures in every field of study under the sun. Our scientists publish in top-quality journals, win Nobel Prizes, and are world leaders in their spheres. They save lives, improve our environments, and change the way we will live in the future.

Without an organization to serve as a mouthpiece for Canadian scientists, we can expect our science policy to be rudderless and ineffective. While we have important things to say, it's impossible for a government to listen to scientists when we're not even speaking.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pharma shrinking, Proroguing the inevitable

For some reason, the Montreal Gazette has a piece from the Windsor Star on the website this morning, and it freaks me out. The headline runs: "Workforce expert predicts future jobs." Which is a little like a meteorologist predicting that the future will have weather.

Apparently she's been waiting for a long time for appointments in offices that contain 5-year-old copies of The Economist; arguing that economic growth will depend on local people training and upgrading their skills. "You can't deny the importance of the knowledge economy," she is quoted as saying. The article also says she offers the pharmaceutical industry as a growth area for job seekers.

Now we'll leave alone the fact that we have more people with university degrees than our economy knows what to do with, and just point out that last year alone, Pfizer cut 19 500 jobs. This is the 2nd time in three years they've topped the pharma charts; in 2007 they cut another 10 000 jobs. This past year, Merck cut another 16 000 jobs; Johnson & Johnson slashed almost 9 000; and AstraZeneca lost about 7 500. Between the top 6 job cuts in the industry, over 63 000 jobs went to the big market in the sky.

The reason for this is that the pharmaceutical industry is scrambling to make money right now. There are no blockbuster drugs waiting for approval from the FDA, no huge breakthroughs that promise huge profits. Without the ability to provide any goods, big pharma is reduced to making money in the way that corporations usually do it: mergers, acquisitions and cuts. This is bad news for the workers, none of whom have the advantageous situation of, say, a GM employee.

All that to say that big pharma is not a growth industry in real terms, and anything decent in "little" pharma is going to get its intellectual property snapped up by one of the big boys, leaving little but empty infrastructure and unemployment in its wake. Not what I would describe as a strong market.

* * *

A couple of words on prorogation.

Proroguing Parliament is nothing new. Everyone has done it, from Sir John A to Jean Chretien. Normally, however, Parliament is prorogued to start a holiday break or to end a session. Harper's prorogations have been special, certainly in the modern Parliament (last 30-40 years).

Last time, Harper prorogued Parliament because he was facing a vote of confidence that he thought he might lose, and that a coalition of opposition parties might form a government. So he asked the Governor-General if he could buy some time while he talked with various parties long enough to let the coalition run its natural course: failure. This was annoying, but it was smart politics.

This time, however, the reasons for prorogation are less clear. There is a scandal before the government regarding Afghan detainees, the Olympic Games in February, and another vote of confidence coming in March (the budget). However, these issues don't seem overwhelming - not while important bills are waiting before the House (the anti-crime legislation that is an integral part of the Conservative platform, for example).

This prorogation comes during a scheduled break from Parliament. This is pretty much unheard of, and extends the break from 39 days to 76 days. It is disingenuous for Harper to say that this is a routine procedure: the only other prorogation that lasted this long since 1968 (as early as I checked) was Chretien's 82-day prorogation in 2003-2004; executed mostly to avoid Sheila Fraser's report on the Sponsorship Scandal and inquiries into military conduct in Somalia. For the Conservatives to criticize Chretien's move while defending Harper is outright hypocrisy.

Which shouldn't surprise me, I suppose. What does surprise me is that something was worth wasting political capital on prorogation. What's waiting in the wings when Parliament resumes in March?