Monday, April 20, 2009

Bob McDonald Explains why Canadian Scientists Are Upset

Bob McDonald is the host of Quirks & Quarks on CBC radio. He has a blog and here's part of what he posted on Friday [Another Earth Day, Canadian scientists concerned].
While people around the globe celebrate the beauty of our planet on Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists in Canada are concerned that government funding is heading in the wrong direction to provide sensible solutions to environmental problems. More than 2000 scientists from across the country have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Harper and the Leader of the Opposition, expressing concerns over cuts to basic science research. It’s basic science that takes the pulse of the planet.

The scientists are concerned that government money is overlooking vital areas. For example, the current Conservative budget allocates $2 billion for university infrastructure - in other words, renovations to aging buildings. But those funds come with a catch. They must be matched with private funding, something everyone is having trouble finding during these tough economic times. Keeping roofs on buildings is important, but if there are no scientists to work in them, what’s the point?

The Canada Foundation for Innovation, a major source of science funding, did receive $740 million, but it also comes with that match-funding hook. The other funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have had their budgets cut back, while Genome Canada was essentially ignored.

The rest of the government’s support for science is going towards the automotive industry, carbon sequestration, biofuels and scholarships for business students. In other words, applied science is taking precedent over basic science.

While we do need both, when it comes to the environment, the two types of science are often at loggerheads.

Politicians like to support applied science because it leads to jobs and products, such as more efficient cars or new wireless devices. Basic science, on the other hand, can’t promise an immediate economic return because it simply looks at nature to understand how things work - and more importantly these days, how things are changing. As we’ve seen with climate change, basic scientists have been out in the field watching ice caps disappear before their eyes, carbon dioxide levels rise and climate patterns shift. At the same time, those dealing with the technology at the heart of the problem resist the basic science to keep the current systems in place.

[Hat Tip: T. Ryan Gregory]


  1. I'm afraid the master minds of science will soon be a myth in Canada if something is not done. I wouldn't be surprised if statistics showed a decrease in scientists in Canada, if I was one I too would consider moving to another country where my research is well funded and respected.

    Take care, Elli

  2. there are other people than scientists who need to work under roofs at universities. it would be a start if the scientists would recognize that.

  3. anonymous says,

    there are other people than scientists who need to work under roofs at universities. it would be a start if the scientists would recognize that.Good point.

    In many ways, scientists and engineers are much better off than all other groups in the university. I think the cut in finding to SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) is more serious than the cuts to NSERC and GIHR.

    It's worth keeping in mind that you can have excellent universities without scientists but you can't have a real university without philosophers.

    The more serious question is whether you can have a real university with a School of Management! I'm inclined to think that schools of business and management are the antithesis of a universities. When you put them together they annihilate each other.