Canada's reputation as leading science nation at risk

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest scientific society, chose Vancouver to hold its prestigious annual conference. This is no small matter. The scientists of the AAAS lead the way on issues of the highest importance to humanity. The health, wealth and indeed the future of our planet depend on their expertise.

The Professional Institute's membership includes 23,000 scientists and researchers working for the federal government who are pleased to welcome the AAAS. But while we welcome the scientific world and celebrate with pride our many Canadian achievements, it is also time to share a few home truths. Thanks to misguided government policy, Canada's investment in science is becoming negligible and our reputation as a leading science nation is at risk.

In fact, Canadian science has come up against a new and potentially lethal threat. It is a toxic mix of disdain for evidence-based decision-making and a disappearing commitment to transparency. The release of preliminary data from the truncated 2011 Census reminds us of a key policy decision -- to end the long-form census -- that stands out as symbolic of a raft of actions by the federal government that indicate a clear preference for ideology over evidence and a basic lack of respect for scientific knowledge.

South of the border, the Obama Administration has challenged its departments and agencies to open up government science. This has resulted in the forward thinking decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to actively encourage its scientists to reach out to the media and the public. As President Obama summed up the objective: "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions."

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists are being muzzled. Highly regarded scientists with worldwide reputations publishing in prestigious peer-reviewed journals are repeatedly denied the opportunity to explain their work to the media and to their fellow citizens. Even simple and innocuous requests from journalists are now invariably met with delays, deferrals and denials.

To add insult to injury, science-based departments in the federal government are being starved of resources. R&D in the federal government has taken a serious nosedive from 30 per cent of total Canadian R&D in 1970 to a mere 9 per cent in 2007. With our investment already significantly below the G7 average, Statistics Canada projections show a further 10 per cent annual decline in federal government R&D in 2011. And this is before the impact of the next federal budget that we are told will target a least $8 billion in further cuts.

Government scientists are in untenable position -- their ability to do their jobs is compromised by disappearing resources, a lack of support from their employer and by their inability to communicate their scientific discoveries and their importance.

Why does this matter? The only driver for government -- or what we like to call public -- science is the public good. It informs regulatory and policy decisions, sets standards, and provides all Canadians with vital services that protect their safety and security and preserve their environment. Public science also supports R&D and innovation in the private sector to improve the economic and social well being of all Canadians.

And there is a mountain of evidence that the private sector needs all the help it can get. Business has struggled mightily to carry its fair share of the load in advancing Canadian science. A tremendous amount of time and attention has been expended trying to understand the under-performance of Canadian business in R&D. But today, after a plethora of panels, studies and reports, Canadian business R&D is falling even further behind.

As the AAAS conference begins in Vancouver this week, it is high time that Canada rejoined the world's -- free -- scientific community. It is time to recommit to sound science, lift the gag order on scientists, and increase our support for science and R&D up to G7 standards. Above all else we need to develop the knowledge and foresight that Canada and the world so desperately need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Gary Corbett is President and CEO of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). PIPSC represents some 60,000 scientists and professionals across Canada's public sector. This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun.

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