You expect that a Harvard Professor and a former Astronaut would cherish an opportunity to step up for a more serious, more vigorous, more rigorous, more scientifically driven, and less politically motivated research policy for the Government of Canada. Wrong! Ignatieff has been back in Canada long enough, and Garneau has been in politics long enough to know that a major discourse on research policy does not move votes. Remember the debates?
In my opinion, there are three good measures of whether political parties are serious about the country’s research policy.
One is their stated position vis-à-vis basic research. Why? Because fundamental research doesn’t normally buy votes (there may be, of course, exceptions), because it addresses the country’s long-term objectives well beyond an MP’s term, and because it seldom proves lucrative to special interests. Basic research is sometimes dubbed “pure research”, probably to signal how far it is from political considerations and short-term gains. Featuring it in a political platform is a sign of intellectual maturity and yes, an act of courage at a time where the focus is on voters’ instant gratification.
The second measure is the party’s position regarding how research thrusts are chosen for the country. Pre-selecting “winning sectors” that are solely based on political grounds, or on the economic benefits of certain ridings, is always a bad sign.
Then there is the party’s position on how research projects should be evaluated and how funding decisions should be made. Circumventing independent research councils and learned societies in funding decisions are obviously crucial indicators. Advocating for arm’s-length evidence-based research councils to administer innovation programs, and taking money away from pork-barreling “development agencies” is, in my opinion, a good measure of how mature the stand of a given political party is.
How does the Liberal Party’s platform measure up to these criteria?
Well, it does repeat the usual clichés about the importance of basic research, but makes no specific funding commitment. It does mention that “the CANADARM, the Blackberry, IMAX and Canola are among the many examples of innovative breakthroughs that would not have occurred without public investment in basic science, research and development,” but then promises to increase investments in basic research only as the country’s fiscal situation improves!
This is as wishy-washy as it can get – a far cry from Marc Garneau’s speeches of times past, when he was trying to emulate Obama’s grandstanding for basic science in his stimulus budget and in the middle of a major financial crisis.
The liberals have, however, a few ideas between now and until the country’s fiscal situation improves. They plan to provide new research funding targeted at brain research (why not liver or bladder research?), oil sands’ environmental impacts (okay, touché), and efforts to protect freshwater ecosystems. They have also identified three “champion sectors” that will be the focus of their innovation strategy: clean energy, health and bio-sciences, and digital technologies. Fair enough, as the objectives are broad enough and political parties have to point in some directions after all. But I wish they had stopped there before they stated that “they will target new tax incentives for innovative, emerging firms, in these Canadians Sectors”. In other words, the Liberals are offering another Innovation and Productivity Tax Credit, on the premise that innovation comes from the Canada Revenue Agency. Go figure!
Now how do the Liberals measure up on the criteria about the processes that lead to research funding decision? After all, we are still living with the remnants of their legacy in terms of delivery mechanisms of government support for R&D. Aren’t they the ones who created the pork-barreling regional development agencies? On the other hand, they were behind the relatively sound and independent “Canada Foundation for Innovation”, as well as the “Canada Research Chairs”, which are reviewed through the Tri-Council.
Well, the Liberals promise to establish an “Innovation Gateway“, “which would bring the panoply of boutique innovation programs under a single umbrella”. They must have been reading our blog posts on the subject.
“A Liberal government will also revamp existing innovation programs to ensure that they do a better job of meeting the needs of the private sector. Currently over 100 such programs are scattered across the government, working with little strategic vision or purpose, and leaving Canadian entrepreneurs and major enterprises confused about what government support is available for innovation.”
That’s music to our ears. The problem is that the Liberals offer no details on how to proceed with this major clean-up exercise. The Conservatives have already established an R&D Review Panel to do just that. The panel is yet to report, but hopefully, this Liberal interest in the subject will get the politicians to empower the panel further, and give them enough teeth to deal in a substantive way with the issue of proliferation of R&D boutiques.
The most disappointing part of the Liberal platform is its total disregard for the future state of the three Research Granting Councils, let alone its lack of commitment to increase their funding, even at the very modest levels announced in the Conservative Budget of 2011.
The Liberals would additionally restore the mandatory long-form Census. A no-brainer, and probably a good political move, but hardly a major statement about research policy.
In summary, it looks like the Liberals would continue present government policies of targeting funding research following priorities set by politicians, not the scientific community. Their platform fails to address the need for independent, peer-reviewed, basic research in universities and colleges. It fails to call for investing in government sponsored research that will mobilize all of Canada’s research capacity while ensuring that it meets both the needs of Canadians, as well as the country’s responsibility as an advanced society to contribute towards pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge.
It is unfortunate that the Harvard Professor and the Astronaut didn’t have more to add to that important conversation.