Researchers wonder: What's the plan for R&D?

Canadian scientists have expressed dismay at the lack of attention given to research during the federal election campaign.

University of British Columbia astronomer Jaymie Matthews has a method he uses when teaching first-year non-astronomy students the importance of evidence to science and the problem of assuming people know this evidence.

He sets up an impromptu in-class debate, and charges one of his students to defend the position that the Earth is the centre of the universe, while another student takes on the role of proving the position held by the scientific community — that the Earth is just one planet orbiting an average star in an enormous universe. After the debate, the students in the class vote on who was more convincing.

In the last nine years he's conducted the debate seven times, and in that time the student with science on their side has never won the debate. Not once.

"It's hard to win," he said. "One person gets to appeal to the emotions of the audience, while the other can only rely on facts and reasoning."

Matthews, who gained national prominence as the chief scientist behind Canada's tiny MOST space telescope, said a similar dynamic is at work in this fall's federal election, where the dialogue on issues like science policies and research funding has gone missing.

On Sept. 17, federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion did pledge a 60 per cent increase of funding for university-based research — to $500 million a year — and proposed a $100-million fund to enable scientists, researchers and graduate students to take on projects that extend beyond the barriers of their disciplines.

But the topic was soon buried under the larger issue of government spending, with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper that same day calling the spending proposals of Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton "mind-boggling" in size.

The Conservatives have not issued their party platform, but neither they nor the other party leaders has devoted a speech to science-related issues outside the environment.

The Green party has promised research and development funding, but has focused its promises on environmental and clean energy research. Science funding and policies were not among the top issues of the Bloc platform, and the NDP platform, released Sunday, suggested increasing funding for university and college-based research, but did not go into specifics.

"That no one is talking about science and research is disheartening, but not surprising," Matthews said to CBC News. "The thinking is these aren't the issues that win elections."

Scientists lack voice in government

While not surprising to them, it's a situation that doesn't sit well with many in Canada's scientific and research community that CBC News spoke with recently.

They expressed dismay at political parties that want to build a knowledge economy but seem unwilling to contribute to it. They lamented the lack of a clear vision on Canada's scientific future and remain frustrated over how debate over the one scientific issue — the environment — has been framed almost entirely around economic, rather than scientific measures.

In short, they feel ignored. Part of the reason for this is that they lack a clear voice to represent them. While the United States has the umbrella organization the American Association for the Advancement of Science, only Quebec researchers have a similar group, the Association Canadienne-Française pour l'Avancement des Sciences, to speak for them.

But also, they feel they should be part of the process, particularly as science policies and issues were front-and-centre earlier this year.

The federal government's decision to block the sale of the space and satellite units of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. was an unprecedented move that was cheered by nationalists but received mixed reviews from those in the space industry, many of whom were waiting for follow-up commitments.

The government was also praised for the appointment of astronaut Steve MacLean as the new head of the Canadian Space Agency, but came under fire for their handling of the medical isotope shortage and the closure of the National Science Advisor office, issues that attracted widespread interest in both public and political circles.

The closure of the Science Advisor office and departure of Arthur Carty, the man who filled that role, was particularly troubling to many in the scientific community, since it meant they had lost a potential ally in government to address issues like funding and policy.

University of British Columbia robotics professor Alan Mackworth, who holds a Canada Research Chair in artificial intelligence, told CBC News he thought the closure was "very strange" and said it reflected a lack of understanding of the role of science and technology in the 21st century.

Matthews agreed, and said it was a blow to the community. "It's hard to get your voice heard if you don't have a champion," he said.

Scientists also lack a more direct government representative. Former opposition leader Preston Manning made this point in an editorial in the Globe and Mail last December, blaming the lack of oversight during the medical isotopes shortage on a lack of engineers and scientists in Parliament and the lack of a dedicated science ministry.


'It's hard to get your voice heard if you don't have a champion'—UBC astronomer Jaymie Matthews

From 1971 to 1990, Canada had a dedicated Ministry of State for Science and Technology, but that was since dissolved and science and technology has come under the Ministry of Industry. The current government also lacks a separate minister of science to assist the minister of industry.

As a result, researchers and administrators that CBC News spoke with have a host of concerns and comments about the state of science in Canada that they don't feel politicians are addressing.

Funding a top concern

Funding was the top concern: few scientists can complain about current funding levels, but some worry about the future of the funding while others worry those funds are becoming too narrowly focused on industrial spinoffs or favoured established programs at the expense of new initiatives.

Jeffrey Crelinsten, the co-publisher of Research Money, a newsletter that follows scientific research and investment, said Canada's funding of university research has been robust, but less so for industry. According to 2006 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada's research and development funding is less than two per cent of its gross domestic product, a percentage which ranks below the OECD average of 2.2 per cent.

Crelinsten points particularly to the closure at the end of 2006 of the Technology Partnerships Canada program which provided a large part of the funding for the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program's assistance to small and medium-sized technology companies. Dwindling venture capital incentives have also made it difficult for Canadian companies to spinoff homegrown technology, he said.

"Canadians support science and technology and they seem to want universities to be funded, but I don't think they get that it's the private sector that's driving things," he said.

The result, he said, is Canada's pursuit of a knowledge-based economy is being undercut by a lack of commitment to that goal. He said the issue with science policies in general is that parties can put forth funding, but few support that funding with a plan.

"The Liberals have said, yeah, we'll spend money there, but no one is telling us how will we know we succeeded," he said. "What are you trying to achieve? What's the measure you are going to follow? No one's talking about that."

As for funding programs for university research, uncertainty is what has researchers on edge, he said.

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, for example, was started in 1997 as an independent corporation created by the federal government to fund research infrastructure and was originally given a five-year mandate. Since then, however, it receives funds on a year-to-year basis, and neither the federal government or any other party has made direct promises for future funding, said Suzanne Corbeil, the vice-president of communications for the CFI.

"People in the research community are worrying, hoping these programs will continue, but it's uncertain. There's been no announcement," said Crelinsten.


'Fifteen years ago, I sent my best students to the USA for graduate studies because our labs were grossly ill-equipped. Now the shoe is firmly on the other foot. I hope it stays there.'—Hugh MacIsaac, director of the Canadian AquaticInvasive Species Network

University of Toronto geologist Andrew Miall said since former Liberal governments introduced several successful programs, including Canada Research Chairs program and the establishment of the CFI, "there has been little interest shown by any of the parties in this topic," he wrote in an e-mail.

"And the actions of the Harper government do not give any cause for reassurance. Their cancellation of grants for the arts suggests a very traditional deep conservative suspicion of the intellectual life, and it would not surprise me at all if they manage to chip away [at other programs]," he said.

Hugh MacIsaac, the director of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network and a University of Windsor professor, praised former Liberal governments and the Harper government for increasing overhead to universities for research. But, echoing the thoughts of many scientists, he expressed some anxiety over whether it will continue.

"Fifteen years ago, I sent my best students to the USA for graduate studies because our labs were grossly ill-equipped," he wrote.  "Now the shoe is firmly on the other foot. I hope it stays there."

The British journal Nature added its voice in an editorial published on Sept. 18, saying the lack of attention to research funding during Canada's federal election was "a shame" and lost opportunity for Canada.

The Nature editorial also points to the attention paid to the environment, and wonders why other issues aren't receiving the same attention.

But MacIsaac said even that attention has been skewed.

"The parties (and the media) are focusing almost exclusively on carbon taxes or carbon caps," wrote MacIsaac in an e-mail response.

"There are other [environmental] issues of importance to Canadians that are contained in the party's platforms that we do not hear anything about," he wrote.

Matthews said the lack of refined discussion of scientific issues is part of what he sees as the same emotional style of campaigning his first-year students engage in his debates. He points to the Conservative authorized website that refers to Dion as "Professor Dion" as a sign of the attention given to science in the election campaign.

"They say professor like it's a bad thing," he said. "It's a microcosm of the campaign."


Paul Jay


Paul Jay is a reporter and producer with CBC Ottawa. You can reach him on Twitter @PaulJayCBC or email him at