Federal government boasts big on science, offers little proof
Published in the National Post.
In a recent interview on CBC’s The National, Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear remarked that “no government in the history of this country has supported science as much as this government has.” As Mr. Goodyear is Canada’s overseer of an institution whose credibility rests on the impartial consideration of scientific evidence, he will doubtless welcome an evidence-based assessment of his remark.
But before doing so, we must understand what, precisely, Mr. Goodyear means by “support.” There are, after all, many different kinds of support: financial, structural, even moral. I suspect that Mr. Goodyear means financial support, as he has noted — repeatedly — that since taking office in 2006, the government has invested more than $8-billion in research and development. Mr. Goodyear is also correct that from 2006-2012, funding to the three major national research funding agencies increased substantially.
Moreover, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2011 Canada ranked first of all G7 countries in investment in Higher Education Research and Development (inevitably abbreviated to “HERD”), as expressed as a percentage of GDP. This analysis, in the form of a fetching colour graphic, occupies a prominent position in the 2013 federal budget.
So there is some evidence to support Mr. Goodyear’s contention. But some of the evidence is not very compelling. For example, a quick glance at the OECD report that spawned the budget graphic shows that Canada’s HERD ranking in 2011 was the same as it was in 2000 … during a Liberal majority government. Hardly proof of an unprecedented investment by the Harper Conservatives.
In science, as elsewhere, where money is spent is as important as how much is spent. Most of the $8-billion allocated to R&D has been invested at the top of the scientific research pyramid, in technology development and commercialization. For example, virtually all of the new $454-million R&D expenditures in the 2013 budget target private-public partnerships, mostly in applied or commercialization research. Yet it is basic research that forms the base of the R&D pyramid, the wellspring of the pipeline to technology development and commercialization. There is a very real risk that Canada’s current investments focus exclusively on the final step of what is a long, often difficult process of development. Investments in the initial stages could well be much more useful, and perhaps more efficient, as well.
What about government science? Over the past several years, research programs at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, and the National Research Council Canada have been cut substantially. Canadians have also witnessed the shuttering of major research institutions, including the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, and the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy. Indeed, the scope and scale of the reductions prompted Nature, perhaps the world’s premiere science journal, to run a lead editorial that concluded: “If the Harper government has valid strategic reasons to undermine vital sectors of Canadian science, then it should say so.”
Science depends on the transparent communication of scientific evidence. Moreover, as public servants, government scientists are accountable to the public. The former requires that scientists be able to collaborate with peers, the latter that they be able to participate in open dialogue with the public. Yet a recent report by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic presents compelling evidence of internal communication policies that not only constrain the ability of federal government scientists to communicate with the public, but also impose substantial barriers to collaboration with academic and foreign scientists.
Even more disturbingly, a new code of conduct for employees of Library and Archives Canada characterizes employee participation at public meetings, conferences and in the classroom as “high risk” activities. This and other evidence has to a recent decision by the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to investigate allegations that government scientists are being muzzled.
Apparently contradictory evidence in science, as in law, is inevitable. Scientists, judges, and jurors must therefore weigh evidence carefully. So should the public when evaluating the validity — or otherwise — of Mr. Goodyear’s claim.