As always, politicians were crowding the Monday morning issue of the Hill Times newspaper. But today’s was different from any other day. No less than four politicians were either making “major” statements about federal plans for funding R&D, or taking the time to write about it. One wonders why we are witnessing this unusual surge of science-related interest in Ottawa’s political discourse. Are the pollsters showing something out there? Are both sides of the aisle sensing that the anti-science labels –illustrated by the latest “death of evidence”, “the assault on reason”, or the “attack on knowledge” metaphors– are sticking with the general public? Let’s briefly summarize the essence of what they said.
Gary Goodyear, the minister responsible for science and technology, seemed to be announcing that the National Research Council (NRC) has already won the battle of who is going to lead the federal effort of coordinating research partnerships with the industrial sector. “The NRC will be ‘transformed’ to respond to private sector demand”. How did they convince the PMO? Where are the universities? The Tri-Council? And so much for the recommendations of the Jenkins panel, which in spite of the carefully chosen words, go quite far in the direction of suggesting the dismantlement of this venerable institution. Yet, the NRC is emerging as the ultimate winner in this sweepstakes of federal funding for industrial R&D. We can now kiss goodbye the “Industrial Research and Innovation Council” (IRIC), as recommended by the Jenkins panel and as vigorously defended by UT President, David Naylor.
The government continues to shower the Jenkins panel with praise, yet it is judiciously adopting only two of its six recommendations: the one that is making it $400-million in saving cuts to the SR&ED program, and the one “committing” $400-million in early-stage risk capital for the private sector, and $100-million in the Business Development Bank of Canada to support venture capital initiatives. Sounds fair! But remember that guaranteeing repayable loans is not the same as committing to spend funds on industrial R&D. I guess the latter will have to come from redirecting funds from basic research at the Tri-council.
Kennedy Stewart, the NDP’s Science and Technology critic, was following up on his recent initiative, which is essentially unheard of in the chronicles of research funding policy in Canada. Stewart actually collected data from a substantial number of leading scientists and wrote a comprehensive report on the recent NSERC cuts –mostly to the MRS– and their impact. “We cannot hope to increase our national productivity by closing what can be seen as Canada’s ideas factories—our labs and research institutions.” – With such a clear and loud statement of support and much more, Canada’s research community cannot be but plenty grateful.
The article by Industry minister, Christian Paradis, was quite intriguing. For one, it looked like he was announcing his entry into the R&D section of his job. Indeed, ever since the departure of Tony Clement, Gary Goodyear seemed to be in charge of that portfolio. All the standard repertoire was there in the article: The NRC, IRAP, the Jenkins panel, private sector–led venture capital funds, the NCE program, Mars, and the Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery, etc…
But the most intriguing part was his repeated use of the term “Canada’s life sciences sector”, when he was essentially describing technological, commercial and mostly pharmaceuticals products … Everything but what we usually call the “life sciences”.
And as I was thinking: WOW! Isn’t this a clever –and for us scientists an alarming — exercise in rebranding as basic research something which often isn’t, and with infinite opportunities for a new shell game? Then, I saw Elizabeth May’s article.
Obviously responding to that rhetoric, she starts with, “It was once the case that the term “life sciences” meant the scientific study of living organisms. It meant biology, zoology, ecology, and even bio-ethics. In what must have been a public relations re-branding, “life sciences” has now adopted an almost entirely technological, commercial focus on genetically-modified products and pharmaceuticals.”
“It is in this sense that “life sciences” has become a hot commodity. While the Harper Conservatives seem allergic to any kind of science to monitor and expand our knowledge of life on earth … pressing for the commercial advantage of the global pharmaceutical industry is a “life science” Mr. Harper likes.”
Powerful stuff for a Monday morning!
Now does all this mean that science is destined to become less and less removed from the centres of power, or is it simply another way to re-brand basic science into something the government would like to support?
“A ce moment de sa narration, Schahrazade vit apparaitre le matin (Tuesday!) et, discrète, se tut…”