Sunday, March 8, 2009

Once Again: The State Of Science In Harper Land

Following up on this earlier post of mine:

Canada puts the squeeze on science
Experts warn research lacks adequate funding and the government a coherent vision. While the U.S. invests heavily in science as an key part of its economic revival, Canada is spending less and putting scientists out of work.

By Mohammed Adam

From their high perches in the world of Canadian research, former national science adviser Arthur Carty and McGill University neuroscientist David Colman, see Canada at a crossroads in research and development.

Despite the energy, tremendous potential and growing cachet of Canadian research scientists, experts believe the country is wandering, both for lack of adequate funding and a coherent vision from the government.

Studies have shown that scientific research is much more than an academic exercise. It is critical to a country's economic well-being and that's why many governments focus on it. A 1999 study estimated that through its contribution to increased productivity, the benefits of university R&D is $15 billion, or about two per cent of Canada's annual GDP. This translates into between 150,000 and 200,000 jobs, but today, a decade later, the benefits could be greater.

In the nation's capital, R&D spending is particularly important. In 2006, $1 billion was spent on research in the region, helping to fuel the economy and sustain jobs. Beyond that, research done in Ottawa has impact around the world.

At the Carleton University fire-research centre just outside Ottawa, a team from the university's faculty of civil and environmental engineering is researching ways to make wooden columns and beams more fire resistant, and consequently create new markets for the country's troubled timber industry.

"The wood industry is very large in Canada and the downturn in the economy has affected it significantly. Research is always important and what we are doing will allow the industry to expand into new markets," says George Hadjisophocleous, industrial research chair in fire-safety engineering.

And in collaboration with the National Research Council, and the support of the Fire Protection Foundation in the U.S., Amtrak and Toronto Transit, area scientists are about to begin new research into the behaviour of tunnel fires. The idea is to study how trains, including subway systems, burn in underground tunnels and how much smoke they emit. The research is expected to lead to design of new ventilation systems that will save lives in fires.

Yet, at a time the U.S. is hoping to make scientific research an integral part of its economic revival -- and investing heavily in it -- Canada is spending less and putting scientists out of work.

- This year, the three granting councils that fund the bulk of research in universities -- the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research -- got no extra money from the government, amid a big-spending stimulus budget.

- Worse, under the guise of "strategic review," the three councils have been asked to cut about $148 million over three years from their budgets -- at a time comparative bodies in the U.S. are getting billions from President Barack Obama's massive stimulus package.

- The National Research Council, which shed more than 100 jobs, including scientists, in 2007, has to cut $27.6 million over three years under a government-ordered "streamlining." More jobs are under threat.

- Today, "well below 20 per cent of grant applications" for academic research can be funded, says Jim Turk, who represents 65,000 academics and other staff in more than 120 colleges and universities across the country as the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

In comparison, Obama has made what New Scientist magazine calls "the biggest bet on science and technology in history," putting about $25 billion into basic research. Billions of dollars more are going into energy renewal, new electricity grids, space projects and numerous other ventures. Following Obama's lead, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown is vowing to "entrench investment in science as a national priority," recession or not. But in Canada, experts say the government appears hesitant and uncertain.

"A country as strong and sophisticated as Canada should have a direct and clear understanding of where it has to go to lead the world in terms of science. You have to look forward with vision," says Colman, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute. "The United States has a long-range plan and it never lets funding for the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation drop terribly. But here the (grants) agency funding is flat or worse. The priorities change and change dramatically every budget year. If, with every budget, you are going to change your view, you are not giving your country a chance to be the best in the world."

- - -

Colman, who was recruited from the U.S. to become the director of the neurological institute, one of seven "centres of excellence" in Canada, knows what he is talking about. In 2005, he helped recruit a young star researcher from the U.S. to continue his work on the brain that might help design artificial visual systems for the blind. But the pair then got a shock when the grant for the star researcher's proposal was cut by 44 per cent because of budget constraints, making it impossible for him to fully develop his project.

Two other well-regarded researchers faced similar problems. In the event, Colman and the MNI lobbied hard to get money from a different program to keep the research going. Colman says scientists go where their research is supported, and he never stops wondering how long young researchers who are in demand around the world will put up with such uncertainty.

Carty, a former president of the National Research Council and national science adviser under prime ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, agrees. He says the Conservative government has put a lot of money into science infrastructure, but its overall approach to research is something of "a puzzle."

"Things have not gone dramatically bad under the Conservative government, but there is a lack of understanding of how scientific research works," says Carty, now the director of the Institute of Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo. "We are getting mixed messages. On the one hand the government is investing in infrastructure. On the other hand, they are not investing in the research that people have to carry out in the labs being funded. What message is the scientific community to take from that?"

Carty says buildings and equipment are important, but so are the operating dollars needed to hire the graduate students and fund other expenses that make research work. "It is not one or the other," he says.

- - -

Gary Goodyear, the federal minister of state for science and technology, says the critics are wrong. He says the Conservative government has supported scientific research like no other. It has spent a lot of money on infrastructure for which it is very proud, he says, but it has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into numerous research projects. Under a 2007 blueprint, the government has not only supported the granting councils, it has given more money to the likes of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Automotive Innovation Fund and the centres of excellence for the commercialization of research, and has established scholarships to attract new talent to Canada.

"Every single budget this government put forward has significantly increased funding to the science and technology sector. The first three budgets we put in $2.2 billion in brand new funding. This latest budget, we put in $5.1 billion," Goodyear says. "We need a place to do research and that place has to be world-class. And we need researchers to do research in that place. We are supporting the places to do research, we are supporting researchers and we are supporting quality research. The future of science and technology is stronger here than the United States."

But concern about Canada's perceived drift in scientific research is not only coming from the ivory tower.

(Keep reading ...)

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