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The research challenge Canada faces

Justin Trudeau’s newly minted minister tells Ivan Semeniuk that her government ‘believes in science,’ but reviving Canadian research will take much more than faith

Newly installed Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan.

Newly installed Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

The lab coats are coming.

Six weeks after a dramatic election win, the Liberal government is setting out to transform the role science plays in Canadian public life.

In a campaign that hinged on style and tone, the Liberals branded themselves as the party of transparency and openness, promising a government in which data and science would light the way to sound policy.

The messaging could hardly be clearer. In contrast to the Stephen Harper government’s commercially oriented take on the role of research, the members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet are being told to bring “scientific considerations” into all aspects of their decision making.

“This is a government that believes in science,” says Kirsty Duncan, a onetime researcher newly appointed as Minister of Science. If there is to be a genuine paradigm shift in how government and science interact, it will depend in large measure on how well she and colleague Navdeep Bains, the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, can hit the shift key and hold it down.

This week revealed the magnitude of their task. On Wednesday, a senior medical researcher at the University of Ottawa told the Ottawa Citizen he could no longer recommend that students pursue a career in science due to the negative impact of recent changes to federal funding.

Then on Friday came a long-delayed government report that shows the country’s knowledge engine is sputtering badly. Its “disturbing” conclusions highlight years of inadequate investment in Canadian research and poor uptake of scientific talent and ideas beyond the lab bench.

The report also makes clear that it will take more than good intentions to put things right. Relative to its global competitors, Canada will need to spend billions more on science merely to rank as average.

It is Mr. Bains’s remit to grapple with this shortfall most directly by applying the nation’s research muscle to boost growth. But if he is managing the body of Canadian public science, Ms. Duncan has been given charge of its soul.

“His area is really innovation and driving the economy,” she explains during her first sit-down interview as minister. “Mine will be support for research and ensuring evidence-based decision-making.”

It’s a fitting role for the MP for Etobicoke North, a PhD medical geographer who first came to public attention by leading an Arctic search for frozen traces of the 1918 Spanish-flu virus and later contributed to a United Nations panel on climate change and health.

Just six months ago this week Ms. Duncan rose from the opposition benches in the House of Commons in support of a motion that federal scientists be allowed to speak freely and scientific evidence be considered when the government makes decisions.

Today her job description is to make that happen.

Back then, the Liberals were the third party in the Commons and plunging in the polls. Opportunities to steer debate in the House were few and far between, and this was one of the few remaining chances to do so before the expected election call. Many issues could have been raised, but the party was persuaded to focus on science.

It was really difficult to watch former colleagues not being able to speak about their work

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan

Ms. Duncan had an in when it came to getting her party’s leadership onside: Mr. Trudeau was her seatmate on the opposition bench. Over long sessions and late-night votes, she says, they talked policy – often science and technology policy.

Ted Hsu, a physicist and the Liberals’ science critic at the time, says that “Kirsty did the heavy lifting” needed to have the party back a motion that included striking down the policies said to be muzzling scientists, making the results of federally funded science easier for the public to access and creating a chief science officer to act as a guardian over scientific integrity in policy-making.

When she seconded the motion made by Dr. Hsu (who did not seek re-election last month), Ms. Duncan spoke from personal experience, describing conversations with researchers she knew in government labs who felt they couldn’t communicate their findings publicly.

“It was really difficult to watch former colleagues not being able to speak about their work,” she says.

The motion’s defeat, 145 to 119 (the NDP voted in favour) barely made the news, but much of the wording worked its way into the Liberal campaign platform released a few months later. Two weeks ago, it emerged again, this time handed back to Ms. Duncan, at times almost verbatim, as a set of priorities in her mandate letter from the Prime Minister.

Scientists and other stakeholders across Canada’s research community are happy to see one of their own in the minister’s chair. But many wonder how she and her cabinet colleagues can accomplish what they have been asked to do – not just reverse the policies so unpopular under Mr. Harper but craft a new role for science that has never been present in Canada’s government before and, even more important, boost the value of science to the economy.

The task is ambitious in scope and ambiguous in detail, and there is plenty of room for missteps. Ms. Duncan isn’t ready to say what she will do but lists the guiding principles behind her mandate and that of the chief science offer, a new position she has been asked to create: “It’s transparency in decision-making, ensuring that science is available to Canadians and ensuring evidence-based decision-making across government.”

Policy under stress

Based on her mandate letter, Ms. Duncan’s job also includes strengthening basic research, reviewing and reforming environmental assessment, increasing co-op placements for science and engineering students, establishing new research chairs in sustainable technologies and helping to examine the role of climate change on marine ecosystems.

It’s a remarkably diverse and activist assignment for a ministerial role that in previous governments was more about carrying out policy than shaping it. And she is stepping into it just as parts of Canada’s science policy are showing signs of serious breakdown.

That was made clear on Friday when the Science, Technology and Innovation Council released its latest report on the state of science in Canada. A creation of the Harper government, the council is tasked with providing scientific advice on request – although never publicly – to federal departments and to the prime minister directly. Its other principal function is producing the biennial report.

This year’s edition was scheduled for release last spring but delayed until after the election, and it’s easy to see why.


While Canada is respected for the science it produces, its ability to translate that science into business-led innovation and economic performance is clearly plummeting, to a degree the report’s authors call “disturbing.”

Since 2006, Canada’s private sector has slipped from 18th in the world to 26th in how much it devotes to research and development. Total investment in business innovation has now fallen below 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This comes at a time when business sectors of other industrialized nations, including the United States, China, Korea and Germany, are showing strong increases, and Canada is paying the price.

“Low investment in business innovation hurt Canada’s global competitiveness, as demonstrated by lower productivity growth,” the report notes.

Canada’s total funding for research and development remains stagnant at around 1.6 per cent of GDP,

with federal and provincial spending on university research helping to offset private-sector declines.

But even at universities, the council found, the level of spending “has not been sufficient to keep pace with other countries that are committing more resources faster.” And while Canada doubled the number of doctoral degrees granted in science and engineering between 2006 and 2012, its labour market is doing a poor job of absorbing people with skills in scientific and technical fields.

These are not favourable signs for any government’s science policy, particularly Mr. Harper’s, which emphasized the role of business in research and viewed science primarily as the driver of commerce.

The minister charged with reversing the tide says he knows what he is up against. Mr. Bains calls the declining business-sector investment “a really big deal,” and grappling with the situation lies at the core of the innovation mandate he has been given.

He also notes that Canadians are adept at starting companies based on innovative technologies, but the real challenge is growing them to the next level.

An equal challenge is whether Mr. Bains can do much to help in a domain where government has far less direct influence.

Shift or shutdown?

Back in May, Ms. Duncan’s predecessor defended the Conservatives’ record in Parliament. Ed Holder asked how all the talk of a war on science squared with the fact that the government had just announced it was spending $243-million to secure Canada’s partnership in the Thirty Meter Telescope, an enormous new astronomical observatory slated for construction in Hawaii.

Mr. Holder, the third and most affable science minister (then called the minister of state for science and technology) to serve under Stephen Harper, could have cited more examples. During the fiscal crisis of 2008, science funding had largely been protected from harsh cuts by then-finance minister Jim Flaherty. Furthermore, the government introduced a tier of scholarships, fellowships and research chairs to woo international research talent. Then, in its final months, the government unveiled a $1.5-billion fund to finance large-scale university-based research.

Policy analysts tend to agree that it’s inaccurate to suggest the Harper government somehow shut down science. Rather, it shifted research priorities in a way that often reflected a small-government, pro-business agenda. Under Mr. Harper, there was more emphasis on applied research with commercial outcomes, and the National Research Council was effectively repackaged as a contract service for industry.

At the same time, the amount of science generated by federal researchers shrank, particularly in areas related to climate and the environment, even as environmental regulations were loosening. (The most glaring example was the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned freshwater research facility the government marked for closure in 2012.) When it came to university research, resources were concentrated on a cadre of top-tier scientists in fields the government favoured, arguably at the expense of others.

Similar strategies have been pursued by different governments at different times seeking to optimize their research enterprise. Had Mr. Harper left it at that, many would have disagreed with his approach, but it’s unlikely science would have been an election issue with any traction.

What differentiated his government was its apparent insistence on controlling, and even blocking, the exchange of factual information, which is central to how science works in modern society. As well as cancelling the mandatory long-form census (which the Conservatives called a privacy invasion rather than a resource), it shut down the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an advisory body on sustainable development. And everywhere across the government, scientists used to pursuing their work openly, alongside university researchers and colleagues in governments around the world, were suddenly not allowed to speak without ministry approval and supervision.

The change cast a pall over the research community and shocked those who interacted with it. The effect extended beyond Canada’s borders, touching international colleagues, partner institutions and anyone else who had cause to work with a Canadian federal scientist.

Jana Goldman, now retired, was communications director for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when the Harper-era communications policies took effect. At a press conference she organized several years ago for NOAA’s annual report card on the state of the Arctic, an Environment Canada scientist who was a key author of the report was initially not allowed to speak. Only at the last minute, when Ottawa called to approve, could the briefing proceed. The intervention was disconcerting, and “pretty odd,” Ms. Goldman recalls. Having witnessed similar interference during the George W. Bush administration, she says, “I could understand it, but we looked to Canada to be a little more enlightened.”

Reporters typically encountered stiff resistance and long delays when trying to reach federal researchers, even for the most benign inquiries. As more incidents of muzzling and political interference surfaced, complaints mounted. The controls often proved unworkable at a practical level, as routine requests to interview scientists were filtered up through higher authorities for approval, including in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Whatever commitments the Harper government made to research, from the lofty Thirty Meter Telescope on down, were overwhelmed by allegations that federal science was subject to political interference.

The muzzle dilemma

Inevitably, the new government’s science policies are, at least at this stage, shaped by a strong reaction to what came before.

For example, within days of being sworn in, Mr. Bains issued a statement that, going forward, “government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.” That such a statement should be required speaks to how much has changed over the past decade, but it also skirts some obvious complications.

While science typically functions on a system of open communication, through peer- reviewed publications and broader public contact, the government’s scientists may well find their expert opinion differs from official policy.

This is just what the Conservatives were accused of trying to avoid, at the cost of an informed public. Research advocates favour an approach in which scientists are free to speak – but must make it clear their views are personal. In practice, this can still lead to grey areas that reporters may readily ferret out and which federal scientists, especially after a decade of not speaking much, may be ill-equipped to handle.

“Just saying you’re not muzzled any more is nice, and scientists will speak out, but there’s no protections for them,” says Kennedy Stewart, the New Democratic Party’s science critic, who frequently allied with the new minister on policy matters when she was in opposition.

Ms. Duncan agrees there needs to be a more detailed communications policy for government researchers, and says she plans to work with the scientific community to develop one.

Indeed, the issue is certain to arise anyway. Last spring, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union whose membership includes some 15,000 scientists and engineers, introduced scientific-integrity language into its collective-bargaining negotiations. The language is designed to protect scientists from political interference, setting the stage for conflict over what exactly that means. The union says that Liberal promises are not going to turn back the clock.

“We put it on the table, we will keep it on the table,” says Peter Bleyer, special adviser to the institute. “Governments come and go. We’re hoping that something like this will help to provide a safeguard against another wasted decade in Canadian public science.”

Talk versus action

Not that scientists and their supporters aren’t celebrating the government’s return to dialogue. This week offered a striking example of that dialogue when provincial first ministers converged in Ottawa to meet Mr. Trudeau ahead of the climate talks that open Monday in Paris. The meeting kicked off with a science briefing and online question-and-answer session that involved Ms. Duncan and Greg Flato, a senior scientist with Environment Canada who contributed to the latest United Nations climate-change assessment – but who was almost impossible to reach when the report was released.

Louise Comeau, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, an advocacy group, was also at the briefing and marvelled at the change. She recalls how closely she worked with government officials and scientists leading up to the Montreal Climate Change Conference in 2005. When the Conservatives came to power the following year, those connections atrophied.

“I’m so keen to re-engage and re-establish our relationship and to have access to the latest science, and work together – that’s the opportunity I think we have again,” she says.

Science-policy watchers say the bigger challenge will be to make the transition from the symbolic gesture of openness to sustained action on climate and other environmental issues while groups that have long been shut out of formulating federal policy rush in to be heard again. In a 2012 editorial, the journal Nature suggested that the Harper government could not distinguish between environmentalism and environmental science. Mr. Trudeau’s team will have to be more deft at distinguishing between research and activism as it tries to forge policies it can sell to Canadians while staying honest about what the science says.

There remain hurdles, too, in modernizing the federal government’s handling and archiving of scientific information, following the closing of ministry libraries by the previous government and centralization of computer services.

However, it now looks as though the long-form census will return next year. Munir Sheikh, who resigned as Statistics Canada’s chief statistician over the issue in 2010, praises the move. But he adds that he is looking to see how quickly the Liberals proceed with another promise – making StatsCan fully independent.

Dr. Sheikh calls the agency’s current arrangement with the government “bizarre” because, under the Statistics Act, technical decisions can be made by a minister. Instead, he suggests Statscan be run like the Canada Revenue Agency: accountable to government but immune to direct interference.

“Statscan is collecting data on issues that are important to all Canadians,” he says. “Why should a politician fool around with it?”

The delicate intersection where science and politics meet is most apparent in the first task on Ms. Duncan’s list, and one that she fought for in opposition: creating a chief science officer.

The objective is to give science a place in policymaking, yet Ms. Duncan admits that no one is yet quite sure how the position will work.

Under Mr. Harper, the role of science adviser to the prime minister created by Paul Martin was abolished and replaced with closed-door consultations with the chair of the Science Technology and Innovation Council.

The loose description of the post that appears in the Liberals’ campaign platform suggests the new science officer will advise but also oversee how science is handled by the government. Policy experts say that, in practice, putting two such roles into one job, or even one office, could be problematic.

Ms. Duncan says she is in the midst of reviewing various options and international examples with an eye on best practices.

“We’re going to take our time to get this right,” she says, declining even to estimate how long that will take.

Mr. Stewart, the NDP science critic, thinks the role should be quite different. This week he announced he plans to revive a motion he launched in 2013 to create a science position akin to that of the parliamentary budget officer – independent of the prime minister and governing party.

Although he supports the choice of Ms. Duncan as minister, Mr. Stewart, who has a doctorate in government and taught public policy at Simon Fraser University, has long advocated for a more developed science strategy. Once Parliament resumes, he says, he will be looking for more details on what she and Mr. Bains have planned.

“We’re very far behind in investing in the knowledge economy and that’s going to take money and private-sector incentives,” he says. “I don’t see anything like that on their agenda at this point.”

Still in ‘listening mode’

Right now Ms. Duncan says she’s in “listening mode,” getting up to speed on all the parts of her ministry, including the National Research Council and the councils that allocate money to university researchers.

She has also run up against some criticism in the media for her past support of research into a controversial approach to treating multiple sclerosis championed by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni. Asked where she stands on the research today, Ms. Duncan stresses her commitment to the facts: “I asked for the science … There’s free and open debate in science. And Canada is undertaking clinical trials.”

She then turns the conversation to her past work as a scientist, teacher and consultant to government. Past ministers have expressed enthusiasm for Canadian research, but she may be the first to identify personally with that world.

“Science was my life,” she says. “This matters profoundly to me.”

In a global economy fuelled by science and technology, it also matters profoundly to the future well-being of the nation.

Ivan Semeniuk is The Globe and Mail’s science reporter.

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