Obama’s grandstanding for science

…… presents us with a problem but also with opportunities

Canada’s establishment is currently engaged in a raging and – in my opinion – healthy debate about the state of R&D in this country, its impact on the new economy and on post-modern societies, as well as on the role of government in supporting it. This debate was mostly triggered by the recently announced stimulus budget and the subsequent reactions, not the least of which being the March 16 “Don’t leave Canada behind” open letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, A letter I have co-signed with more than 2200 of Canada’s leading researchers.

A succession of recent op-eds in the Globe & Mail indicates however that this public debate has now evolved into several different — but somewhat related – conversations which seem to be happening at the same time:  directed vs. basic research (John Polanyi, April 30), “esoteric” vs. cashable projects (Gwyn Morgan, April 30), support for infrastructure vs. investment in human and intellectual resources  (Harvey Weingarten, May 1), consolidation of excellence in urban areas vs. development of centres of knowledge in all of Canada, scientific discovery vs. transcendental truths and beliefs, climate change awareness vs. the dismissal of its premise.

Far from being a “manifesto” of the research community against government, the  “Don’t leave Canada behind” letter stayed clear from many of these issues.  True, it did rebuke those who were trying to earmark the SSHRC scholarships away from the Humanities, and yes it did call for a re-evaluation of the matching requirements for the Knowledge Infrastructure Fund, and for a review of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. But the main message of the letter was a call to our decision-makers to properly size up the new world context we are about to enter. In retrospect, what an understatement it turned out to be.

A new world order

The new reality is that — for at least the next four years — what Canada’s governing bodies, business leaders, university presidents, scientists and intellectuals think, say and decide about Research and Innovation will matter enormously for the future of Canada. The agenda laid out by President Obama in his April 27th historical speech to the US National Academy of Science is inescapable, and it all but emphasized the urgency of our call to Canada’s leaders.  Our country and the world are facing a whole new paradigm. The United States has just declared “a global war for talent”. The new US President has announced a new national dream that will define his presidency. It will also define the legacies of the leaders of all technologically advanced societies.

“Either you’re with us or you’re lagging behind us” is the new challenge to the world. Obama even went so far as to denounce those whom he thought would criticize this investment, given the national debt and the state of the U.S. economy. That’s how defining this issue is for the new president.

A significant problem but also an opportunity

Our letter to the PM conveys that Obama’s dramatic move of placing Science at the heart of the American stimulus agenda presents Canada with a significant problem, but also with huge opportunities. Both present challenges that our government ought to, and can, address.

We have all heard about the potential threat from the re-emergence of the US as an inviting scientific juggernaut: the brain drain of our best researchers, the major loss on investment when our best graduates go south for greener pastures. The public may know less about how arduous it is for Canada’s universities to compete in the crucial business (and a business it is) of attracting the world’s best students to our graduate programs.

But this new world order for economic recovery through innovation also presents huge new opportunities for Canada’s scientific community which should be looking for US and international partnerships that will leverage our resources and our talents many times over.

Government needs to set the tone

Seldom have Government’s actions and attitudes been more needed for answering both challenges. Here, the letter could have been more explicit at what it would take to keep Canada from being left behind, and it is not only about the money! Yes, we do ask “government to immediately develop a multi-year plan to significantly increase this country’s R&D investment through our granting councils.” But first and foremost, we should have called upon our leaders to articulate a vision for a Canada that respects, nurtures and empowers its research community, and thus enables it both to compete in the new race for discovery and to collaborate in new global partnerships for knowledge and innovation. A research community that has neither the confidence nor the support of its own government and its leaders, a community whose intellectual aspirations are micro-managed, whose research programs are second-guessed, and whose discoveries are disparaged, cannot perform these tasks.

Though significant and necessary, it wasn’t only the government’s investments in new labs and equipment during the last decade that got researchers to move north across the border, but as stated recently in a StarPhoenix editorial, “it was the belief that, unlike George Bush’s America, Canada valued the intellectual capacity of researchers, whether their work was directed or basic”. It is this atmosphere that we need to recreate and foster in order to counter and eventually ride Obama’s challenge that reverberated all over the world.

In one call, Obama re-opened the doors of America’s research labs and post-secondary institutions to both developing and developed countries. Just like postwar America, the US will again be the El Dorado for thinkers, creators and innovators, a natural home for all global talent. Our country is equally blessed with the promise of a better future for creative and hard-working entrepreneurs and researchers, and no one is better positioned than our Prime Minister to project the same message to the world:  Canada’s upgraded research infrastructure is now ready and open for the beautiful minds of this planet.

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