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.

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