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When science gets political, long-term knowledge is lost

Sumitra Rajagopalan, adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University and founder of Bioastra Technologies Ltd.

This week, to great fanfare, the Canadian government unveiled a dream team of top-notch scientists from around the world. Predictably enough, women's groups cried foul, for the star recruits for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program just happened to be all male. Cue the outrage.

This rhetoric - which, interestingly, came from women's studies departments, not science - reveals how out of touch these critics are with today's women scientists and their fields. Any systemic bias that might have once existed in science is finished. If anything, science and engineering departments the world over now actively seek female candidates for open positions - and many women find it patronizing. The notions of "equity" and "excellence" are simply incompatible.

In fact, some of the recent CERC appointments are a cause for real concern for a different reason: a strategy taking root that threatens to radically alter Canada's research landscape. Let's call it "political science."

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Since coming to power, the Conservatives have made research commercialization the cornerstone of their science strategy. Hence their focus on product-oriented "applied" research while skimping on basic research.

Since Canada has lagged behind its Western counterparts in the manufacture and sale of high-tech products, this focus has been welcomed by industry. But this government's interest isn't really "applied science" but a more short-sighted "utilitarian science" - technologies that can quickly solve immediate, narrowly defined problems, rather than long-term investments in building knowledge. Worse, we are beginning to see an intertwining of scientific priorities with politics.

These trends are very apparent in some of the CERC choices. The biomedical and computing research chairs are beyond reproach, but some of the other choices reflect a narrow, utilitarian focus.

Take Prof. Thomas Thundat, hired by the University of Alberta. He is renowned in the materials science world, and ought to have been given a broader mandate to develop novel nanomaterials for a range of applications, and to shape the future of nanosciences as a whole. Instead, his mandate is to find better ways of extracting oil from tar sands - and only that. This research area, which clearly fulfills a political objective, even has an absurd new title: "oil sands molecular engineering."

Another example is an excellence chair awarded to Prof. Marcel Babin. Again, a world-renowned professor who brings wide-ranging expertise in oceanography, space science, optics and sensing. Yet, he has been tasked to narrowly focus on the remote sensing of "Canada's new Arctic frontier" - a phrase that reeks of political propaganda.

Don't get me wrong - governments have every right to set science priorities and invest in select areas. However, political leaders are also expected to be ahead of the curve and put forward broad, open-ended vision.

Think Bill Clinton's National Nanotechnology Initiative, or Al Gore's vision of an information superhighway at a time when the Internet as we know it barely existed. By contrast, Canada's federal politicians are constantly playing catch-up and shoehorning science to fit a narrow political agenda.

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Last year alone, the government cobbled together an automotive research program shortly after the GM bailout to develop new cars, a program for new forest byproducts to help boost an ailing forestry sector and a program for carbon capture technologies after the hullabaloo over Canada not meeting its Kyoto targets. All projects that can be easily sold on the campaign trail - unlike, say nanotechnology. This blinkered approach will have serious long-term consequences.

To be a true world leader, our government ought to invest in key multidisciplinary areas that will drive innovations in all sciences - such as functional materials and nanotechnology. These twin fields of research are as vital in creating disruptive technologies in medicine, electronics and communications as they are for providing fundamental insights into matter and nature themselves.

Another key area is design engineering, a visual, holistic approach to complex technological problems. There is a growing consensus among engineering professors in Canada that design, rather than traditional number-crunching, will lead to breakthrough technologies and innovations.

Our government should be commended for its CERC appointments. Now, it should reorient its science policy toward broad, multidisciplinary research that will benefit science and Canadians as a whole.

Sumitra Rajagopalan is an adjunct professor of biomechanics at McGill University. She is the founder and chief scientist at Bioastra Technologies Ltd., which specializes in biomedical devices.

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