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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Michael Bliss - Anti-Science Conservative

Michael Bliss is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. He has written some excellent books on the history of science, notably a book about the discovery of insulin.

Bliss has always been a small-c conservative and many of his opinion pieces have supported conservative policies.

On Thursday, May 14th, Michael Bliss entered the debate on Canadian science funding [Michael Bliss: Anti-Harper campaign politicizes research to the detriment of science]. His main point is that Canadian scientists are whiners and complainers who should keep their mouths shut because they are damaging the reputation of science in Canada.
It’s time that responsible leaders of the Canadian science and research communities began thinking of ways to cool down their more hot-headed colleagues. The strategy of declaring war on a government because some of its policies are temporarily inconvenient and vexatious can generate cheap short-term applause and support in some quarters, but in the long run tags its adherents as unreliable and unworthy, or worse. Eventually doors get shut in their faces, and/or they’re left to wither on the vine.

It’s a sad way to tarnish what often has been and still could be one of the success stories of Canadian public policy.
I've never been a fan of Michael Bliss but this diatribe goes way over the line. Scientists are justifiably criticizing a science policy that they feel is doing great damage to Canada's ability to be competitive in the 21st century. Michael Bliss is saying that scientists should not speak out when they disagree with government policy. That's a strange position for someone who has made a reputation of speaking out on controversial topics.

But it's at least consistent with conservative thinking.

Michael Bliss thinks it's OK for governments to direct scientific research. He thinks the only important kind of research is that which directly benefits business and consumers. Applied research and technology is "accountable."
By and large, Canadian researchers have not had a bad inning in recent years. Some observers think that the research community has actually had an easy ride, never having been forced to show exactly what benefits are being generated for the Canadian people by the money given researchers. If the government of Canada ever decided, for example, that this country should lead the world in demanding hard accountability from researchers who live off taxpayers’ largesse, today’s discontents would seem like extremely small beer.
I suppose that's why Bliss admires Banting and Best and the others who discovered and produced insulin. I suppose he hates those scientists who discovered recombinant DNA technology to help with their curiosity motivated research even though it led directly to the production of human insulin—a far more effective form than the old insulin from pigs.

The main product of research is knowledge and knowledge is always of more benefit to the Canadian people than ignorance. During his many decades at the University of Toronto, Michael Bliss and his students contributed to that knowledge base in many ways. Some of the work in history that he published was paid for by research grants. I wonder if he can meet the demand of "hard accountability" that he demands of others? With respect to his own scholarly work, I wonder if he can explain "exactly what benefits are being generated for the Canadian people"?

(Read Commentary strives to politicize science funding debate on Researcher Forum for a similar perspective on Michael Bliss.)


  1. I would be the last person to argue against basic scientific research. My problem, and maybe Prof. Bliss' problem is that additional government funding is not the solution to our lack of research. Yes I believe research is vital to the Canadian economy. But it is not the function of government to ensure that this research is carried out. Its time for the academic community to get more creative, time for the private sector to step up and take some risks in an area that will always payoff, one way or another. I cannot fault the Harper government for trying to restrain spending. Right now there are too many "mouths to feed" for government. Worthy research will find a backer, but the researchers must put in a bit more effort for the funds.

  2. Re thebrightlibertarian

    Would Mr. brightlibertarian care to inform us which private sector outfit might have seen fit to finance the building of the Large Hadron Collider?

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  4. Bliss says,

    "Some 2,000 scientists signed a petition asking Ottawa for more money. In passing, The Globe and Mail — in which most of these stories had heavy play — gave front-page coverage to a nasty bit of “gotcha” journalism implying that our Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, may not believe in evolution — in other words, he must be an anti-science dumbbell."

    The first comment any competent teacher of writing would make about the above paragraph is, "What's your point? Revise this paragraph; however, Gary Goodyear: "anti-science dumbbell" - leave that in."

  5. Pardon my ignorance: when Bliss says, "a handful of scientific superstars" to whom is he referring?

  6. Bliss contributed an essay on "The Worst Canadian". His choice was Lord Beaverbrook. The essay was so badly written and badly argued, that I'd have given it, at best, a C if submitted by a first year student. Very strange.

    As to the cuts, the remarkable thing is that they were made at all. The amount of money saved is tiny in comparison to the budget. If all that cash were restored, you'd have to look to the third decimal place on the deficit figure to notice a difference. Even doubling our NSERC budget would basically be in the noise level.

    So the cuts were clearly not a matter of saving money. I suspect this is another case of pandering to his base, as were the arts cuts last summer.