Why is the UK so interested in Canada? Well, maybe it’s not but this morning it sure seems like it. On the heels of The Economist’s editorial last week about Canada’s prorogued Parliament (mentioned by me here), the prestigious UK science journal, Nature has published an editorial about Canadian science policy. Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind has posted eloquently about the editorial here. The editorial itself can be read here. (I’m not sure what the journal’s policy is with regard to free access. Some journals give free access for a day or two after publication while others give access to editorials but not articles and so on …)
The points in the Nature editorial are well made. From the editorial,
More generally, Canada has no group comparable to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the United States for focusing attention on science policy. Lobbying of the government bodies that have power over science is fragmented. And Canada has nothing comparable to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is headed by a science adviser who reports directly to the US president. Canada did have a science adviser to the prime minister during 2004–08, but he was largely sidelined before the position was terminated. (There is currently only a ‘minister of state’ for science and technology, a junior post that lies within the industry ministry.) The council that replaced the science adviser is entirely reactive to government queries, and produces reports that traditionally are not made public.
It’s quite true that we don’t have the institutional structures that they mention (AAAS, Office of Science and Technology Policy, etc.) although, as they point out, we did have the now eradicated science adviser position. Canada’s Ministry of State for Science and Technology is indeed a junior ministry and I agree that it should be a more substantive ministry. In any event, I’m very happy to see some international attention paid to Canadian science and some of its strengths (they mention our academic science) and weaknesses.
Interestingly the UK has a Minister for Science and Innovation (jointly with Ministry of Defence) but his (Lord Drayson’s) portfolio is part of their Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. In fact there are many ministers in this department as you can see here. There does appear to be a lead minister for the department (Lord Mandelson) but I wish they had an organizational and/or reporting structure diagram to clarify how this enormous department with all its ministers functions. Given that the UK science ministry does not exist and that the minister of science and innovation (intriguingly also associated with the Ministry of Defence) could be described as having a junior portfolio similar to our minister of state for science and technology, I’m wondering if Nature will editorialize about this situation from a global perspective. For example, is there a move to subsume science portfolios in other ministries or departments or are they being gradually promoted?
As for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the US, the current adviser for the Obama administration has a science background (is a scientist in fact) but I don’t believe that’s a requirement of the position. It is a political appointment and a president with majority support in congress (or possibly the senate or both) could appoint whomever (s)he chooses.
Getting back to the editorial, Canada does need a science policy and there are many ways to go about this as they have in other countries. There is no single solution and no magic bullet (remember? that was supposed to cure all cancers). This will take focused and continuous (i.e. forever) effort.
I expect I will continue this commentary tomorrow.