Silent Courtiers: Never Biting The Hand That Feeds
J. TUZO WILSONMarch11973
Silent Courtiers: Never Biting The Hand That Feeds
J. TUZO WILSON
It was, ironically, a Canadian who urged scientists to speak out when he addressed the opening of the International Geological Congress in Montreal last summer. Maurice Strong was the speaker. He had just come from Stockholm, where he had been secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, and he was talking to 4,300 scientists from 90 countries. The public may well ask why more scientists have not followed his advice. The reason is: few can.
Unlike doctors, lawyers or businessmen, a scientist cannot start his own business and make a living. All scientists must have patrons. Government and industry swear their employees to secrecy; even university men feel the need to be courtiers if they are to get grants and be asked to serve in positions of influence on committees.
For these reasons individual scientists lack the power to speak out, and in most countries they have banded together into academies to speak collectively. The Royal Society in London and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington are highly respected bodies which collect and disseminate independent and expert views.
For historical reasons, Canada alone, among all the major powers both western and Communist, has no powerful academy. There are several reasons for this. Canada is a country of great distances and thin population so that for most of its 105-year-old history scientists could only afford the time to travel by train to a single meeting a year. Also, the Canadian government has long sought to establish its own advisory bodies.
At first glance it is surprising that Canadian organization of science has been called into question, for no one has ever doubted that it is honest, fair, well intentioned, involves able people, and operates without scandal.
Nevertheless, the government by its actions admits that, although the system may seem good, the results are unfortunately poor. The criticisms raised in recent years are that Canada does too little applied research, that it fails to develop Canadian industry, that many graduates cannot get jobs, and that Canada does too high a proportion of pure research which has no immediate effect on the economy.
The Canadian government has recognized the validity of these criticisms and has instituted inquiries into the state of Canadian science by the Glassco Commission, by the Lamontagne Committee and by a committee of international experts appointed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. All have been somewhat critical.
This criticism casts a reflection upon Canadian scientists which seems unwarranted. Far from being inferior they play a large and excellent role in international science. Other scientists have enough confidence in Canadians to elect them to many prominent positions, including the secretaries-general of three of the top dozen international scientific unions, the bodies concerned with international exchanges in physics, chemistry and geophysics.
The proliferation of government committees, set up by different departments without coordination, has resulted in some scientists being appointed as members of a dozen or more committees. They are deflected from their work and become exhausted. The case of a dean who told me that he had gone from western Canada to Ottawa 180 times in five years is extreme but true.
The major problem is subtle, but simple to correct. Canadian governments have been slow to recognize that there are only two modes by which a government can get sound and unbiased advice. The first is for responsible ministers to receive confidential information from permanent civil servants. The second is for the government to ask an independent body, appointed for life and unpaid, to choose the members of committees and publish the findings.
Admittedly, such bodies have their faults, but they also have three great advantages. Members are selected by their peers and appointed for life and hence cannot shrug off their responsibilities and move on after a short term of service. They are unpaid and hence free from one source of political pressure. They have a feeling of responsibility in that they already form an elite body, but know that they need to keep recruiting. Thus, paradoxically, they are less likely than governments to always seek big names and accepted ideas and more likely to appoint able younger scientists for trial and to encourage innovation. In this way they can compensate for a high proportion of older members which is an inherent feature of bodies whose members are appointed for life. Membership in great academies is beyond the power of ministers to offer, but more highly prized than any other reward.
Canada does not fully avail itself of either system. There are many excellent scientists in the civil service, but few are in positions of influence. It is more convenient for governments to follow the faith of economists and oilmen that convenient new technologies will emerge in spite of inadequate supporting evidence.
The outside advisory bodies in Canada all share one feature, that the members are selected by ministers or their appointees for short terms, subject usually to a single renewal. This provides equitable distribution, is suitable for distributing grants fairly and fine for tackling minor technical problems, but it handicaps any deep and long-term studies, it discourages anyone from raising important but controversial issues, and it makes courtiers of scientists. This political pressure is rarely used, but its very existence creates a climate that ensures that many vital but unwelcome questions are never raised. The effect has been scientifically debilitating. This is what I believe to be wrong with the organization of Canadian science and it should be a matter for concern now that serious problems of a partly technological nature are facing the country.
To remedy matters we need not drastically disturb the system. The government should separate the gathering of information from the making of policy. If good decisions are to be made, especially in times of difficulty, it is vital that they be based upon a diligent search for unbiased facts and the free expression of the best opinions, even if unpalatable. This role is best handled by an academy. The formulation of policies that require attention to financial, economic and political considerations as well as scientific ones can then be left to civil servants and existing bodies.
My conclusion is that a crisis is approaching for the western world in general and Canada in particular, and that the only wise course is to recognize it and debate the alternatives. More voices are needed. So far the scientists and engineers have scarcely been heard and I have been disturbed at the number who, since the Mont Gabriel meeting, have told me privately that they agree with my views but dare not say so in public.®
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