Science policy: First, ask the right questions

Question 1: Why should we fund science?

The fourth Canadian Science Policy Conference begins Monday in Calgary. The conference has become an annual rendezvous for politicians and researchers interested in the intersection between, well, politics and research.

The other day I noticed Jim Woodgett emitting skeptical noises about the conference on Twitter. Since Woodgett is the Director of Research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute and one of the country’s leading molecular biologists I wanted to hear more.

I asked Dr. Woodgett to write his concerns in more detail. What follows is what he sent me. Here it is, in the spirit of debate. — pw

Calgary is the 2012 host of the Canadian Science Policy Conference (November 5-7) with presentations from an illustrious listing of researchers, science administrators, business leaders and political commentators. Several of the topics touch on important developments and the role of science in driving innovation and policy (as well as a promising session on the vulnerability of risk assessment and the inherent uncertainty of research). But the agenda also skirts several of the most pressing issues concerning science in Canada that, together, form an existential threat to the way we fund and conduct science. Here are a few topics I’d like to hear debated.

1. Why should we fund science? Perhaps it is rude, in the presence of Ministers of the Realm, to discuss the impact of the recession on our research budgets? But this problem is not limited to Canada and science worldwide is under enormous pressure. Canada’s scientific enterprise has been relatively well protected from the economic downturn. The Spanish scientific community is reeling from cumulative cuts of almost 50%, for example, and even the mighty National Institutes of Health in the USA, with a $30 billion budget, is facing the prospect of an 8% cut due to sequestration legislation linked to the Congressional impasse. But federal funding for Canadian research has been effectively flat-lined (or worse) since 2007, and represents a double-digit percentage cut in real terms when inflation is taken into account. Of course, we’re in a recession, so why not openly debate whether Canada’s investment in science is in line with national priorities?

2. Who funds science? A necessary corollary to raising questions about science funding is whether we are getting the best bang for the buck. At the federal level science is supported by a plethora of programs and agencies – both for public institutions (universities, institutes, hospitals) and the private sector (largely through tax rebates). The Jenkins report recognized the weaknesses in the latter strategy and there are indications of significant changes in the works. Canada’s private sector investment in R&D has long fallen short of our OECD siblings and makes our public sector investment look good. But surely the convoluted federal funding agencies could be consolidated. Do we really need a separate agency for infrastructure (Canada Foundation for Innovation)? Each of the tricouncils (representing health, social sciences and natural sciences) is picket-fencing its constituencies. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council now diverts social scientists studying health questions to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Is research that arbitrary and encapsulated? Should tricouncil barriers even exist in a multidisciplinary world? Could the Canada Research Chairs (which are still funding salaries at the Y2K level) be rolled into the tricouncils? Is it necessary to separately fund genomics research (Genome Canada) in an era where genomics is now integral to most life sciences research? Part of the problem is that these agencies fall under different ministries and have distinct governance. But is this the most efficient and effective way to coordinate, integrate and administer sparse funding? Does it make sense to run so many independent research bureaucracies? Notably, each of the tricouncil agencies is undergoing or planning reforms but are we missing a bigger issue?

3. What is the role of government(s) in science? While the censoring and filtering of federally employed scientists has raised justifiable concerns, there is also the question of what role governments (federal and provincial) should play in research. Due in part to claims by universities of a direct connection between their work and future job growth, there has been increasing linkage of research to economic development. Job creation is what all governments worry about, leading to significant incentives – and opportunities for new university funding. Clearly, new discoveries, materials and processes can drive new innovations and, ultimately, new industries. But wiring research directly to economic benefit has pitfalls including unrealistic expectations, short term thinking, a shifting focus to late-stage or applied research and unsustainable or premature job creation through artificial subsidy. Research, by its nature, is an unpredictable and high-risk adventure, including the probability of providing a return on initial investment. This is why companies can ill afford to invest in early science. Instead, they focus on commercialization of ideas once applications become visible – often in fruitful collaboration with academia. Yet transformational discoveries are rarely made with applications in mind. If this is accepted, then surely the best role of government is to fund what industry cannot – namely blue sky discovery and evaluation – with the added benefit of educating and training our future workforce.

4. Who appreciates science? Surveys of perceptions of trust often put scientists near the top of public confidence. Science affects our lives more than ever, yet public understanding of science has likely never been so poor and many children opt to drop science from Grade 9. In part, this is due to the complexity (and jargon) that surrounds modern science but that is all the more reason for researchers to engage and communicate. It is the public that provides the dollars for all research – through taxes and donations – and warrants both respect and attention. Continuous public engagement also has the benefit of increasing awareness, access to information and evidence-based reasoning. How might we encourage more communication and interest in science beyond gee-whiz sound bites? Hints may be gleaned from the Perimeter Institute’s gallant outreach efforts.

5. How might our scientific competitiveness be improved? Ask any researcher whether their work is internationally competitive and they, of course, answer in the affirmative. But standards are rising. Chinese science has grown by leaps during a period when we and others have been relatively stagnant – we cannot rest on previous laurels. Evaluation of scientific performance is tricky and cannot be reduced to a single metric but are the current mechanisms by which we measure and support our scientific base appropriate? Do we have too many researchers? Are we training students with the right skills? Are we neglecting some areas? Have we built a self-preserving ecosystem that may not serve our long term needs?

We are fortunate to have an annual national forum to discuss scientific policy in a country which currently lacks an official government science advisor. But it would be even better if more of the discussion addressed the mammoths in the room.


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