I am getting to understand the risks (and rewards) of “embedded journalism.” Less than 24 hours into my trip to Ottawa, I started to feel uncharacteristically mollified, dangerously neutralized, and ridiculously guilty. Ever since I met with Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, conferred with Suzanne Fortier, President of NSERC, and Isabelle Blain, her Vice President for Research Grants and Scholarships, and reminisced with the incoming –but not yet announced– Director of the NCE program, I keep wondering: Have I been too tough on these guys?
The meetings were indeed friendly, constructive, useful, and … disarming. I couldn’t help but think of how easier it must be for reporters and analysts to criticize and pontificate from afar, when the rocky mountains are shielding them from any humanized connection with their “subjects.”
Minister Goodyear received me in the House of Commons. Extremely warm, pleasant and friendly, he first showed me around. We sat in the lobby — on the government’s side. We didn’t have time to discuss details of the so many issues at hand. But I did point out one aspect of his tenure that is being noticed and appreciated more and more. I wrote about that before, but it may be best illustrated by his more recent answer to this question from a reporter of The Hill Times: “You’ve been Minister of State for Science and Technology for four years now. What achievement are you most proud of in that time?”
“If I had to pick one, I would say it’s the relationship and harmony that I seem to have had in cooperating with our universities and our scientific community. They all know my door is open all the time. Anytime I travel anywhere we try to book a meeting with somebody on the way, and I think we’ve created a situation where they feel comfortable speaking to me about their needs, and I’m quite comfortable in turning that conversation to the Prime Minister and my Cabinet colleagues to see where we can improve on the science file.”
And guess what! I can now personally attest to that. Indeed, unlike some of his colleagues in cabinet who have adopted a take no prisoner approach vis-a-vis those with differing views, Gary Goodyear has been respectful and reactive to the scientific community. And for that he is earning respect, including from those who don’t agree with all of the government’s actions on the science and technology front.
My meeting with NSERC’s president, Suzanne Fortier and Vice-President, Isabelle Blain, was over lunch (OK, a sandwich!) in Suzanne’s office. We went straight into business. The challenge? How to get the mathematical science community to be more involved in the innovation agenda? Mathematicians and Statisticians rarely dip into the opportunities of NSERC’s Research Partnership Program (RPP) and can we devise appropriate mechanisms to “engage” this hugely important segment of Canada’s scientific community? A vast subject!
NSERC had commissioned a Long Range Plan from the Canadian mathematical and statistical sciences community. After two years of consultations and deliberations under the leadership of one of Canada’s most prominent statisticians, Nancy Reid, the report will be presented to Madame Fortier next week during the CMS meeting in Montreal. The report includes a whole chapter on that topic. The discussions will continue.
Next, was my meeting with the new –and yet unannounced– Director of the Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. Who could it be? I was happy to learn –merely a couple of minutes before that meeting– the identity of the new person in charge. I had actually known him since the early days of PIMS/MITACS (1995-99?). A great guy, with loads of experience and the right temperament to handle the challenges of the position. Cool and relaxed, he didn’t flinch when I told him –jokingly of course– that I have already announced his appointment on twitter and on my blog. He just laughed and laughed. Rien n’est sérieux sauf ce qui ne l’est pas.
More later, on the remaining part of my trip to the nation’s capital, where Science and Technology seems to be playing an ever larger role on the political scene.
Be careful not to get seduced by the Ottawa mentality!
It’s all very well to say that Ms. Fortier, Ms. Blain, or Mr. Goodyear are open to “the community” but what does that really mean? In my experience, it means that well-reasoned and passionately expressed letters are answered by form-letter replies that regurgitate the “party line” and fail to address any of the points raised. When these power-brokers speak of “consultation” it means that they have private sessions with high-flyers in the research community, heads of huge research groups with mega-buck budgets, directors of major facilities, presidents of universities, corporate executives and the like. There may well be give-and-take with people that the power-brokers regard as worthwhile, but again in my experience when peons are invited all we get is a pre-programmed propaganda session and insulting answers to our questions.
Power corrupts as we all know, and scientists are not immune to this.
It is all good and well to talk with the Minister, but it is their actions that need influencing. For example, the hatchet job that is being made of the NRC at the moment is absolutely shocking. A fantastic research organization is dismantled and made into a development organization for business