05/07/2013 06:20 EDT | Updated 07/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Science Is in Deep Trouble

By choosing to shift towards industry-driven applied research at the expense of scientist-driven basic research, the Conservatives continue to undermine scientific progress - and these policies will adversely impact all of us, including the very industry they purport to be servicing.

HuffPost Canada

Today Conservative incompetence met Conservative narrow-mindedness.

The re-launch of the National Research Council hosted by the Minister for State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear shows science is in deep trouble in this country. By choosing to shift towards industry-driven applied research at the expense of scientist-driven basic research, the Conservatives continue to undermine scientific progress - and these policies will adversely impact all of us, including the very industry they purport to be servicing.

It is now clear the Minister of State has lost control of this file and his flailing mismanagement threatens to impede the growth of Canada's knowledge economy. Not only has laying off scores of top NRC researchers severely damaged morale within the organization, NRC production peer-review and patent production has severely dropped since Conservative tinkering began. Not only does the government have an alarming track record of muzzling its own scientists and stifling dissent, by shutting the door on basic scientific research at the NRC that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs, the Conservatives' short-sighted approach will in fact hurt Canada's longer-term economic growth.

At the re-launch press conference, the Minister of State unveiled what the Prime Minister's Office deems "the most significant transformation to the NRC in 100 years" - a shift away from discovery science and towards what industry deems as commercially viable. Before today, the National Research Council was still Canada's most venerable scientific research institution.

However the Minister of State seems to forget that the NRC's greatest resource is not buildings or equipment, but its people. The advancement of science is the NRC's raison d'être and the scientists who make up the NRC its beating heart. But to look inside the NRC now is to see an organization with a devastated morale: internal polling documents show only 2% strongly agree that the leaders of the NRC are making the right decisions for the success of the organization. In contrast, 43% strongly disagreed.

It's not difficult to see where that dissatisfaction comes from.

First, the Conservatives have a penchant for secrecy, and the shadowy NRC redirection into what Minister Goodyear has in the past called a "1-800... concierge service" has left not just parliamentarians and the press in the dark, but the scientists themselves. Meanwhile, all around them, colleagues receive pink slips and labs shut down.

Throughout this process, the Conservatives continue to refuse to table any plan, mission statement, goals, objectives, or metrics by which to measure success or failure. This has taken place internally as well. In the midst of this major transformation no one thought to ask the NRC scientists themselves where they envisioned the future of their organization.

Second, the Conservatives simply dislike those who conduct basic research. Today Minister Goodyear and the NRC President described those who would be heroes in other countries as only "following their own interests," and being too "introverted" and "insular." Aside from being an insult to the hearth of scientific innovation and the people who dedicate their lives to furthering the frontiers of knowledge, it also brazenly displays an ignorance of how revolutionary, ground-breaking advancements are actually made - through fundamental research.

Inevitably, these secret changes, layoffs, and attacks have resulted in lower production from NRC scientists. Since the Conservatives took office, NRC publications have plummeted from 1,991 in 2006 to just 436 in 2012. In the same time, NRC patents have dropped from 53 in 2006 to a mere 3 in 2012. The message this sends to talented early career researchers considering working for the NRC? Apply your skills elsewhere.

Since becoming Official Opposition Critic for Science & Technology, I've heard from and met hundreds of scientists across Canada concerned about the direction this government has taken in regards to scientific freedoms, including the muzzling of scientists, and the gutting of basic research capacity in Canada. I have yet to hear one scientist in this country voice their support for the government's approach. Angus Reid polling suggests 68% of Canadians trust scientists most to decide how public money dedicated to scientific research should be spent. In contrast, only 8% trusted politicians to do the right thing for science. Scientists serve no partisan agenda and their sole cause the advancement of the frontiers of knowledge for all of us - but under this government, being an independent voice that speaks to the evidence, and not to ideology, makes you a threat.

The dissonant policies betray this Conservative government's lack of understanding about how scientific advancements actually take place. The undermining of scientific freedoms, systematic defunding of basic research capacity and environmental research, and dismantling of the NRC constitute attacks on the foundations of science in Canada. It is disappointing that despite sustained outcry from the scientific community, the Conservatives still fail to grasp the adverse, concrete impacts of their decisions on innovation and growth. Despite this, and recognizing the stakes, we must all continue our push to put our country back on the right track.

The NDP stands up for science and researchers in Canada. Unlike the Conservatives, we realize that in order for Canada to be home for groundbreaking revolutions in science, scientific researchers must be able to depend upon stable long-term funding. At our recent NDP policy convention we passed a motion to consult widely with scientists, researchers, businesses, postsecondary institutions, and provincial, territorial, and First Nations leaders to develop a Made in Canada National Science Strategy and that we would move to increase the percentage of GDP invested by the public and private sectors in research and development (GERD) to make Canada more competitive with other global leading countries such as the United States.

That is the kind of commitment to science Canadians want and it is the type of commitment we need if we are going to grow our knowledge economy.

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