A friendly note to Canada’s science researchers: um...

It’s time to step up if you want anything done on how tax dollars are distributed

This Globe story tells the sad (well, saddish) tale of a researcher who ran into trouble getting enough funding to do his ground-breaking work in Montreal and was sorely tempted by an offer to move his lab to Singapore.

It is the kind of tale that should ring all sorts of bells over here at Inkless: (a) a mismatch between research capacity and grant funding, which leads to (b) top-flight investigators sitting around twiddling their thumbs, or spending so much time on the treadmill chasing funding that they have no energy left over for science; (c) mounting pressure to leave, coming from other jurisdictions (even the Yanks!) that are Doing The Right Thing by funding science, and not just science infrastructure; (d) Canada in danger of retreating back to its 19th-century, Laurentian-hypothesis hewers-of-wood drawers-of-water fugue state.

I love this story. I have warned many times that it would happen: sure, it’s fun to give megabucks to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and who doesn’t like to cut ribbons in front of a new university lab?, but after a while if you build shiny labs and fund shiny Canada Research Chairs and recruit legions of shiny grad students and then cut the budgets of the granting councils, you will have built a Mirabel archipelago (named after the Montreal airport that finally closed for lack of traffic): a coast-to-coast network of white elephants, lovely well-staffed research facilities in which nobody can afford to do any science. Eventually some of them (the researchers, not the facilities) will leave. Especially the ones who came here from afar precisely because the United States used to look (but looks less and less these days) like a place where science is frowned upon.

So here’s my problem: why has nobody in the research community been able to demonstrate that this is the case? With something more persuasive than anecdotes, I mean. The only problem with the Globe story is that it uses “researchers,” plural, in the headline, when in fact it’s just another anecdote about some guy who had a sweeter offer in Singapore than he did at home. Maybe the guy in the next lab is here in Canada because Singapore was chintzing him out and it all balances out in the end.

What I’m wondering is when Canada’s researchers, who depend in many cases on tax dollars for their work, are going to do some research about the distribution of those tax dollars. I asked a director of research at one of Canada’s most prominent institutions whether there’s any objective measure of research capacity vs. granting flow that would demonstrate the kind of mismatch today’s article hints at. He said he’s not aware of any. Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If our national science apparatus is overbuilt and underfuelled, rebalancing becomes crucial. But if the only people who think it is are researchers, and they can’t get their act together to prove their point, nobody will listen.