Canada’s Future

Editorial / by Adam Bly /

Seed editor-in-chief Adam Bly criticizes the Harper government's decision to abolish the national science adviser and calls on Canada to become a leader in science.

Image Credit: Benimoto

An editorial in the Toronto Star recounts a meeting between Seed editor-in-chief Adam Bly and Canadian MP Scott Brison, in which Bly informed the Liberal politician that the government had fired its national science adviser, Arthur Carty. This prompted Brison to raise the issue in Parliament. Here, Bly discusses why a science adviser—and a national focus on science—is critical for Canada’s future.

The Harper government’s decision to abolish the national science adviser is short-sighted and deleterious to the future of Canada. Science is driving our global culture unlike ever before; science now affects every single Canadian. Now is not the time to send a signal—domestically and internationally—that Canada just doesn’t get it.

Having returned last week from the World Economic Forum in Davos (where sessions titled “Science on the Global Agenda,” “How Science Will Redraw the Business Landscape of the 21st Century,” and “When Science Outpaces Society,” for example, figured on the program), it is self-evident that science has made a well-timed transition from a topic of peripheral interest to the leaders of the world to one inextricably tied to issues of development, global health, innovation, competitiveness, and energy. At a time when science is spurring markets, arts and ideas, it is now making its way into our halls of power with considerable momentum.

This is a global shift spanning the developed and the developing world. In Africa, the continent’s education ministers recently adopted a ten-year plan around the conviction that science “is the most important tool available for addressing challenges to development and poverty eradication, and participating in the global economy.” Raising public awareness about science has, for the first time, been made an official part of China’s development strategy. A 15-year plan for boosting scientific literacy, announced last year, states that the population’s lack of scientific knowledge has considerably hindered China’s economic and social development. The plan has two primary objectives: elevating China’s scientific power and the role that science plays in the nation’s development, and equipping Chinese citizens—from urban workers to rural communities to government officials—with the skills needed to apply an understanding of science to daily life.

In Europe, the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science experiment of our time, will go online this year, corralling the collective imagination of a continent. Before leaving office, Tony Blair reaffirmed that Britain’s “future prosperity rests more than ever before on the hard work and genius of our scientists and how we harness their research to deliver improvements in all our lives.” In advance of this summer’s G8 meeting in Hokkaido Toyako, Prime Minister Fukuda noted last week in Davos, “Japan possesses not only the state-of-the-art science and technology that the world needs, but also the track record and experience gained from its success in achieving a high rate of economic growth. Japan will exercise leadership rooted in these achievements in the interest of enhancing the stability and prosperity of international society.”

Around the world, a critical challenge is for our understanding of science to keep up with our interest in science. This new global science culture demands a new level of science literacy, not only for general populations but indeed for the leaders that govern them. Canada needs a science adviser to guide our Prime Minister through this fast-changing landscape. The consequence of diminishing this position is apparent from my vantage point in the United States where the Bush Administration has repeatedly ignored science and scientists. It began by moving the Office of Science and Technology Policy out of the White House, escalated to abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress, and resulted in immeasurable damage to the Bush presidency and indeed the country.

Canada should not make the same mistake. In fact, this is a rare moment where Canada can benefit from America’s deficiency in scientific leadership. If scientists can’t or don’t want to work in the United States, create an open invitation that highlights Canada’s strong scientific community, labs and overall quality of life. Foster competitiveness by nurturing a scientifically literate population. Distinguish Canada from the United States with policy, diplomacy, and action that reflects this enlightened modern perspective. Instead of the shock waves that are resonating throughout the Canadian and the global scientific community as a result of the Prime Minister’s action, as Hon. Scott Brison noted in the House of Commons recently, send shock waves that Canada gets it and is open for business.

After an all-too-long period where science and scientists had been relegated to the outer circle of influence, we are on the cusp of a new era of science-savvy. One in which Canada should and can lead.

Originally published February 11, 2008

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