By Hamish Johnston
I am Canadian by birth and lived in that country for more than 30 years until the mid-1990s. For the past decade I have noticed a disturbing trend in the Canadian government of turning away from the outside world and becoming increasingly parochial in its outlook on important issues. I find this sad because I think the country is a thoroughly decent place that, despite its shortcomings, could provide inspiration for those living under less salubrious social and political systems.
Recent examples of this inwardness are utterances by senior government and civil-service officials, who seem to be arguing that doing science is not useful unless there is an immediate benefit to Canadian business or society. According to the Toronto Sun newspaper, John McDougall, president of the National Research Council said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”
To me, this says the government does not appreciate that the excellent basic science done in Canada is part of a noble international effort that benefits all of humankind – and gives the Canadian scientific community the kudos to influence how science is done worldwide.
There are myriad practical arguments that basic science does have measureable economic benefits to countries such as Canada. These have been made very eloquently by other bloggers (here, here and here for example) and I don’t think I can add much more.
While the anti-science comments are disappointing, it’s worth remembering that Canada has a federal system of government and its 10 provinces have a certain degree of control over science. Universities and hospitals are under provincial jurisdiction and provincial governments do fund basic research. The province of Ontario, for example, has provided a significant amount of money to support the world-class Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo (but not quite as much as the federal government).
Although there are signs that spending on science is falling in some provinces, the good news is that most provincial governments don’t appear to share the fed’s bizarre views on science. That said, the bulk of funding for basic research in Canada does come from the federal purse, so I would be worried if I was a physicist in Canada.
Of course all of this could change after the next federal election, which must happen by October 2015. The current government is Conservative and it’s likely they would win an election called today. However, the Liberal Party has just taken on a young and charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau, who just might appeal to the Canadian electorate after years of dour Conservative rule. Trudeau’s late father, Pierre, was prime minister in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when the country did seek a high international profile. With any luck, Trudeau junior can reignite that desire in a nation that seems to be fading away from the world stage.