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President’s message / The spirit of consultation

President’s message / The spirit of consultation

‘Tis the season of consultations. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government wants to know what people think about a great many things. A recent count, taken from the government’s Consulting with Canadians website, puts the number of official consultations in progress at 85. In early June the site listed more than 120 consultations, ranging from national security to the safety of self-care products.

The summer consultations for basic science — what the government chooses to call fundamental science — came to a close on Sept. 30, 2016. That was the deadline for public submissions to the expert panel on fundamental research appointed by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan. The panel is charged with a sweeping review of the work of the tri-council agencies, including “whether their approach, governance and operations have kept pace with an ever-changing domestic and global research landscape.”

The review is a welcome turn of events, following almost 10 years of science policy that insisted academic researchers should collaborate with industry partners to produce research outcomes that could be monetized. Now, there is nothing wrong with applied science. We all benefit from things like safer and more energy efficient vehicles and homes, for instance. But there is a huge problem when government puts its finger on one side of the scale to insist that money should flow to research that disproportionately benefits the short-term interests of industry, over broader public interests. This was at the heart of criticisms against the Harper government’s so-called “war on science” in which government scientists were muzzled and funding was cut for research deemed politically inconvenient — climate change comes to mind.

A striking irony of the former government’s mandate was that policy claiming to support innovation worked instead to stifle it. Real creativity in the sciences and arts and humanities requires that academics be free to pursue basic research, or “blue-sky” questions, that don’t have immediate functional applications and which may prove politically uncomfortable to the government of the day. As Robert K. Merton memorably put it more than 60 years ago: “The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as ‘private property’ in a capitalistic economy.”

Merton was writing during the Cold War, but he was not speaking politically. He was using the word communism as one might use the word Catholic today, to mean all-embracing or widely inclusive. The fact is that there is an enduring tension in the academy between knowledge produced to be shared broadly for public benefit and knowledge produced as technology and expertise that can be marketed as intellectual property. The latter position was clearly favoured by the previous Conservative government, while the former claim on knowledge is the basis of how public funding has historically been justified in liberal democracies.

This tension remains today, despite the Liberal government’s welcome consultations, and the removal of research grants from the oversight of the former Industry Canada ministry. Today, Canada has two science ministers. Kirsty Duncan is responsible for overseeing fundamental science and Navdeep Bains is Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. The separation of the basic science portfolio from industry is to be applauded. However, it’s important to note that Bains is the senior minister to Duncan and the role of fundamental science is, according to the government’s consultation website, only one of six “areas of action” that form “Canada’s Innovation Agenda” which is overseen by Minister Bains. The innovation agenda’s other five areas of action seek to foster entrepreneurialism, encourage economic clusters and partnerships, accelerate business growth, and help Canadian companies do business and compete in a digital world.

So, five of the six areas of action designated by the government are linked directly to the goals of “innovation,” business growth and entrepreneurialism. In other words, it means goals that are measured quantitatively, not qualitatively and which serve to meet predetermined utilitarian needs.

In the spirit of consultation, let me suggest that the Trudeau government would do well to remember Merton’s maxim about the scientific ethos. Processes of refutation and correction, or what Merton called “organized skepticism,” are at the heart of academic inquiry. When scholarly incentives to pursue the truth as a public good are challenged or replaced with the economic incentives of private gain we are entering very dangerous territory.

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