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Last week, the following resolution, sponsored by New Democrat Kennedy Stewart, was put forward in the House of Commons:
"That, in the opinion of the House: (a) public science, basic research and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making; (b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public; and (c) the federal government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program."
The motion was defeated 157 to 137, with every Conservative MP voting Nay, and every member of the NDP, Liberals and Bloc Québécois voting Yea.
Much has been made of this vote, with critics arguing that it proves conclusively that the government of Stephen Harper is anti-science. After all, how can you oppose the "free and open exchange of scientific information" and support for "basic scientific capacity"?
But the reality is that the resolution, once you get past the mom-and-apple-pie preamble, simply demands that funding be restored to the Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility. The government had just announced the end of that funding so, naturally, Conservative MPs opposed the motion.
Killing that program is short-sighted and counter-productive but it does not necessarily make the government anti-science.
It is fair to say, however, that the Harper government has a strained, conflicted relationship with science, one that is as muddled as the NDP motion.
Federal funding of science and technology has risen steadily since the Conservatives took office, with annual investments now close to $11-billion, despite cutbacks in many other areas of federal spending. The opposition argues that investments have actually fallen but this becomes a semantic argument about what constitutes science and technology funding. According to Statistics Canada, it's up.
Even last week's modest budget (or economic action plan as it now appears to be called) featured some pretty significant investments in science, including $165-million for Genome Canada, $141-million for the National Research Council and an additional $37-million for a trio of scientific granting agencies like the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. (CIHR alone has a budget in excess of $1-billion.)
At the same time, the federal government has taken a lot of flak for its muzzling of scientists. This has little to do with science and everything to do with an obsessive desire to control the message to the point where it seems the only federal employee allowed to speak freely is quirky meteorologist David Phillips.
The government, seemingly, also has a disdain for evidence, as exemplified by attempts to shut down Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver, and the shutting down of research freshwater contaminants.
Again, every government embraces and rejects evidence based on its ideology and policies. Closing down programs that don't fit a government's world view is hardly new. What distinguishes the Harper government is they tend to be a little less subtle and more ham-fisted. So be it.
Yes, we want evidence-informed public policies but you cannot take the politics entirely out of public policy. Nor should you try.
What really needs to be examined though is not just how much money the federal government invests in science, or how it allows its employees to speak of research, but how and where the investments are made.
The most valid critique of the Harper government's approach is that it overly concerned in the commercial outcomes of science. This issue is well-explored in an article by Globe science reporter Ivan Seminiuk.
The point here is that while the government's view that "science powers commerce" is valid it should not put all its eggs in one basket.
Government cannot merely invest in scientific enterprise that will deliver the goods in the short term; if it wants innovation and payoffs over the long term, there has to be as much, if not more investment in basis research and curiosity-based research.
The Harper government has demonstrated a desire to benefit from the promise of science and a willingness to invest in science. But, at the same time, it has shown a profound misunderstanding of the process of scientific research, of the need for openness, risk-taking and, yes, even failure.
If it wants better bang for the buck then, paradoxically, it needs to make less specific demands. To get credit for its investments in science, it needs to back off a bit on the control front, and seek more equilibrium.
André Picard is The Globe and Mail's health columnist.