OPINION

One way Harper needs to be more American

PAUL WELLS October 23 2006
OPINION

One way Harper needs to be more American

PAUL WELLS October 23 2006

One way Harper needs to be more American

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

This week we’re going to urge the Harper government to behave more like Americans. Might as well paint with the grain.

This year the United States swept the science categories in the Nobel Prizes—chemistry, physics, medicine—for the first time since 1983. (An American, Edmund Phelps, later took the economics Nobel. You’ll know for sure by the time you read this, but one presumes the literature prize will break the U.S. streak, unless there are a lot of Don DeLillo fans on the jury.)

Roger Kornberg of Stanford University won the chemistry prize for studying RNA transcription, the process by which the information in the human genome is expressed in cells. Kornberg’s work builds on the pioneering DNA research of his dad Arthur, who won the Nobel for medicine in 1959.

Kornberg’s Stanford colleague Andrew Fire shared this year’s medicine prize with Craig Mello of the University of Massachussetts for work on RNA interference, which silences malfunctioning genes. And the physics prize went to John Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and George Smoot of the Berkeley Lab, who mapped the tiny temperature variations left over from the big bang.

I’ve belaboured these institutional affiliations—and Kornberg’s bloodline—to emphasize a point all five laureates hurried to make as soon as their awards were announced. That’s the overwhelming importance of U.S. federal tax dollars to their work, a bipartisan policy pillar of half a century’s standing.

Mather has been a federal government employee since before I was born. The Department of Energy’s office of science owns the Berkeley Lab where Smoot works. Mello’s medical school attracts more than US$174 million a year in research funding—80 per cent of it from federal government agencies. The National Institutes of Health has paid US$24

million over the years to support Kornberg’s research, and US$8.5 million to Fire and Mello.

So I’m always baffled when, after one of my columns on the importance of aggressive federal support for science and technology in Canada, I get a flurry of emails from readers who argue that it’s socialism, or bad federalism, or a waste of money for the feds to be in the science game. “Leave it to the market,” the refrain goes. “The way the Americans do.” “Well, first of all, the Americans don’t,” Alan Bernstein told me the other day. “The Americans invest way more than any other country on science. And way more per capita than any other country.”

Bernstein is the president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a keystone of

Never mind Bush’s ambivalence, the U.S. invests more in science than any other nation

Canada’s research effort since it was founded in 2000. But compared to the Americans, Bernstein has done his work at bargain rates. It’s an oranges-to-apple-pie comparison, but Bernstein figures the CIHR has less than onethird the budget of its rough U.S. equivalent, the NIH—even if you take population differences into account.

That’s the story of Canadian science. The Chrétien government turned the corner on a generation of deficit spending in 1997 and, over the next five budgets, radically increased the federal contribution to science infrastructure, salaries for researchers, and grants for ongoing research projects. It’s all in Eddie Goldenberg’s new memoir, The Way It Works.

But that formidable investment managed only to get Canada back into the highly competitive global game for the world’s best research

minds. Since 2003, the momentum in federal science funding has slowed. Other countries continue their transformation to knowledge economies. The United States, despite President Bush’s ambivalence about the worth of science, maintains its dominance.

But there’s work left undone. Despite Goldenberg’s understandable pride, the research network the Chrétien government left behind is out of balance. The granting councils, like CIHR and the National Science and Engineering Research Council, don’t have sufficient budgets to pay for research at all the fancy new labs with all the eager new researchers. Success rates for CIHR grant applications have been falling—which means good, deserving science isn’t getting done.

How long will the researchers stay?

Stephen Harper’s government has promised a new look at science and technology before the next budget. It has commissioned studies and consulted with universities. But it’s easy to tell when this government is passionate about something (Afghanistan) and when it isn’t. When George W. Bush launches an “American Competitiveness Initiative,” it’s a plan to double federal spending on the physical sciences in 10 years. But when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gave a speech on competitiveness in Kingston, Ont., last month, he mentioned research only once, in passing. That’s the problem with this Harper crew. They’re not American enough. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells