Friday, July 20, 2012

A Crisis in Canadian Science?

 The Experimental Lakes and the PEARL Arctic research lab are two examples of recent cuts to Scientific Research by the Government of Canada. Should Canadian Scientists be concerned about the future of research?

"Read the directions, even if you don't follow them" is a famous maxim from a 1997 column in the Chicago Tribune written by Mary Schmich which has direct relevance to the relationship between Science and Politics. There is concern here in Canada that the advice of Scientists is increasingly ignored and even unwanted in Political Circles.

For several years, a low-level conflict between the current Canadian federal government and many scientists has been brewing. However, late last year and early into the spring this sentiment has crystalized and broken out into the mainstream. There have been layoffs at many government ministries, talk of eliminating research scientists from government payrolls entirely, an increased emphasis on controlling the message within the public service, the termination of the position of Science Advisor and the closing or de-funding of several significant pieces of scientific infrastructure including Insite, the long-form census, the ozone network, the PEARL arctic research station and the experimental lakes.

I've been wondering for a while now just what I could contribute to this debate. There have been many petitions (ELA, PEARL, Census, Ozone). But with yesterday's protests in Ottawa and today's column in Maclean's by Julia Belluz, I feel like I can no longer be a simple signatory to such documents. In short, there are a few things worth emphasizing at a deeper level then the simple decrying of specific actions by the current government. A step back and a more thoughtful approach is required.

But first some background. There are two separate but related issues here. The first is prioritization, essentially the answer to "what kind of science should the public fund and at what levels?" The second is the role played by science in the public discourse, namely the influence scientific evidence should hold in swaying politics and politicians.

Prioritization of Science

If you take a walk down a corridor in nearly any building at any University in Canada, you will find a who's who of companies and successful individuals who have lent their names and their funds to laboratories. Those are a significant contribution to the work that we do, however, it is important to recall that the largest benefactor to scientific research of all kinds is government at all levels. It's a significant contribution. All told, we learn from NSERC* (the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada) that more than $10 Billion goes to funding Science and Engineering research at Universities in Canada from the Federal Goverment:

Figure courtesy Maclean's.

Maclean's tells us that there has been a 23% increase in the number of researchers between '02 and '07 that might be causing greater competition. But to my eye, the increase in the total budget (above) is in-line with that increase in staffing. Instead, what is likely changing is the allocation between fields which necessarily creates winners and losers. Of course, those on the losing side will be most vocal about those changes as we saw earlier this year with the President's proposed budget in the United States.

It is worth pointing out that such prioritization is the job of politicians who are tasked with allocating scarce resources. So essentially the question is not "are the experimental lakes worthwhile?" so much as the question should be "are the experimental lakes more worthwhile than the alternatives for funding?" As rational beings, I think we all recognize this fact. Furthermore, we need to recognize the concept of sunk costs - that just because a project has been institutionalized does not mean that its funding is guarenteed. That said, Scientific monitoring projects are unique in that the longer they are funded the more valuable their records become. This must be taken into account in any balancing of values and costs.

However, there is one aspect of this re-prioritization that requires closer scrutiny. The current administration has long decried the lack of Commercialization of Research and of Research and Development spending by Canadian firms in general. Admittedly, this is a serious problem, with Canada ranking well below the OECD average at 20th in the world, compared to the size of our economy. There are many reasons why Canadian firms just don't spend on R&D to the same extent as their foreign counterparts. Perhaps chief amongst these is our close integration with the economy of the United States, a far larger market with more competition to spur greater efforts at innovation.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for the government to legislate that companies spend more of their money on R&D. That makes one wonder if a shift from the "S" side of NSERC towards the "E" side, if this is in fact taking place, is, in fact, a sort of subsidy to private industry? Since such priority-setting is the purview of politicians, it is perfectly acceptable, but it should be publicly acknowledged and discussed. Certainly, such a move should not be cast as an increase in Science funding if only the applied side is being encouraged.

Science in public discourse

That brings us to the heart of the debate: not the re-prioritization itself, but the way in which it is occurring. In a perfect world, Scientists would provide policymakers with evidence of past successes for a project to demonstrate its value, reasons for continuing it to increase that value, the costs associated with that continuation and what would be lost in case of cancellation. That information would then be balanced against all the other projects in line for renewal or start-up and the public's appetite to pay for such projects.

But the ultimate cause of all the concern seems to be that scientists feel that this rational approach is being ignored and that the fix, as it were, is already in for programs that do not line up with the prevailing philosophy. Worse, there are those who suspect that there are ulterior motives for the changes being made. For instance, there is a case to be made with the long form census that privacy concerns support eliminating it. However, there are those who point out that without the information this survey provides, it will become more difficult to determine the efficacy of many government programs. Therefore there will also be less evidence to counter the assertion by those who enact such programs that they have been successful.

This is concerning because more and more, the public discourse has become reduced down to a debate in which it is insufficient to prove that one's own argument is superior to the others on offer. Instead, in many places, the game is now more about undermining, denying or eliminating all other arguments.  This is the "attack on evidence" central to the recent protests.

For instance, the global warming debate takes this to the extreme. On one side, I have no doubt that many who argue against it are doing so not because they reject the evidence, but they have made a value judgement: that cost to present-day prosperity is not worth the benefit of the reduction in the magnitude of the change in future climate. But no one argues this. Instead, most such politicians claim that there is no or weak scientific evidence for human-caused climate change and therefore no reason to act.

On the other side you have those who seem to imply that politics do not exist and that everyone not for extreme measures today is an idiot. The best case is this famous video by Greg Craven which suggests that because the potential effects of climate change are so great, we must act regardless of the strength of the evidence. The problem with this greatly simplified argument is that it does not answer the question of how much action should be taken and therefore does not address the real-world problem of allocating limited resources. After all, there are many many low-risk/high-consequence scenarios that can get the same treatment. We cannot commit all of our resources to everything.

Conclusions and Suggestions for Action

The actions we can take are a bit of a tricky matter. On the one hand, Science teaches us to be wary of far-reaching conclusions and to treat all conclusions as tentative. On the other hand, the media and the general public tends to discount those who don't trumpet their findings as the final word on the subject. For evidence of that dichotomy, you need turn only as far as the recent text "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines" by Michael Mann.

One thing I am sure of is that we shouldn't be afraid to speak out about the value of our projects and what will be lost if they are cancelled. But too often, Scientists speak up only when their work is threatened. Instead, as recipients of public funds, talking with the public about what we're doing and sharing the excitement of discovery is something we should be doing constantly. There are those who feel like Science is apart from Society, that somehow we should quietly toil in the backrooms and ivory towers as purveyors of unbiased evidence, speaking only when called upon by our leaders for our "distinguished" advice. But Science is a part of society and we need to fight to preserve the privilege we have secured over generations.

For its part the government should take the advice it receives seriously and should pause before eliminating basic research in favor of applied research. The benefits of having an aspirational and inspirational program are harder to measure, but there is evidence that things like Astronomy, Planetary Science, Particle Physics and the basic sciences are part of the reason that young people enter into technical fields. That is the reason that the US, after WWII invested so heavily in basic research: many of those whose initial curiosity is sparked by space travel or the deep mysteries of the universe will later become the engineers and titans of industry that drive the economy forward.

Furthermore, caution is also called for in eliminating research from the public service. Should the government wish to maintain a capability to assess which policies are working and which are not, to maintain their stewardship of our natural resources in trust for future generations, to maintain the safety of our environment and food supply and to continue to be able to properly assess what science is worth funding out of the public purse and what science is not it is important to possess some in-house scientific capacity. While many of these functions could be done at the University level, this downloading of public trust would need to be done very carefully and its funding secured for the long term.

But ultimately, if you want to change the politics, don't change the politicians - change the people. In the long run it is only by educating and creating a scientifically literate citizenry that we can hope to change the discussion. If we, as a society, reject the simple short-term arguments for the full picture we will demand of our leaders a more nuanced conversation that leads to building a better country. After all, while a primary concern of an elected official is to be re-elected, they should aspire to more. Just as we Scientists aspire to be more than simple paper-mills.
* Full disclosure - I am myself funded through NSERC and the Canadian Space Agency

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