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How to save French-language science

The latest report from the Standing Committee on Science and Research concludes that a serious shake-up is needed to restore French-language science to its former glory in Canada.


“We’re dying a slow death,” said Maxime Blanchette-Joncas, Bloc Québécois MP for Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques. This was his reaction when University Affairs contacted the vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Science and Research about the report entitled Revitalizing Research and Scientific Publication in French in Canada, presented to the House of Commons on June 15.

“Think about it: In 2021, only 0.6 per cent of scientific publications in Quebec were in French, compared to four per cent in the early 2000s,” said Mr. Blanchette-Joncas, who was the driving force behind this initiative, which he described as “historic.” The figures cited by the Bloc Québécois MP come from the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies, which compiled them using data from Clarivate, the company behind the Web of Science platform, EndNote software and Journal Citation Reports.

The committee’s study is one of a series of alarm bells sounded in recent months, warning of the marginalization of French in the sciences. Many of the 28 witnesses heard over five sessions – held between Oct. 3, 2022, and Feb. 2, 2023 – had already shared similar concerns, as had a number of authors of the 24 briefs the committee received on the subject.

Stable funding needed

The director of strategic research and international relations for the Association des collèges et universités de la francophonie canadienne, Martin Normand, applauded the 17 government recommendations made in the report. “They echo our own recommendations made at the conclusion of our ‘États généraux’ in late 2021 and early 2022,” he said. Dr. Normand also testified before the committee.

Several recommendations relate to funding, including asking that “the Government of Canada […] develop a perennial funding program for postsecondary institutions in minority language communities.” The committee also requested the program take into consideration “the challenges related to being smaller and remote, as well as the additional costs” facing these minority postsecondary institutions.

“For researchers to have productive work environments, they need functioning infrastructure. In recent years, funding for these institutions has not been coming in regularly, it has been mainly in the form of lump sums,” Dr. Normand pointed out. The same recommendation appears in the recent report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages.

Another recommendation calls for the three federal granting councils to establish a “minimum level of funding for research conducted or published in French.” Last May, Radio-Canada revealed that 95 per cent of all grants awarded by the councils between 2019 and 2022 went to projects written in English.

According to Radio-Canada’s data, French-language grants represented just two per cent of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) budget. In 2014, the Consortium national de formation en santé also filed a complaint with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, after the abolition of the official language minority communities initiative.

However, Rémi Quirion, Quebec’s chief scientist, believes that it would be unwise to set a budget quota for funding applications submitted in French to each council. “Quebec scientists in certain disciplines apply for more money proportionally than Quebec’s share of Canada’s population. Quotas would shortchange them,” said the head of the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ).

In his view, the best approach is to better promote French-language scientific research, as the FRQ has been doing since 2021, with initiatives such as the Publication en français award.

“We need to give more support to these researchers, support French-language journal publishers in all scientific fields, not just the social sciences and humanities, and improve the discoverability of French-language publications, as we do with cultural content,” he said. The committee’s report called for several similar recommendations.

A central French-language science office?

Could the efforts required to revitalize French-language research and scientific publishing in Canada be coordinated by a central organizing body? That’s the implication of another recommendation, which advocates for the creation of a French-language science office attached to the office of the chief science advisor. The unit would be tasked with, among other things, “proposing concrete actions to be implemented by federal research funding organizations” and “measuring progress achieved.”

The proposal originated from Canada’s chief science advisor, Mona Nemer. Last March, at the committee’s invitation, she drafted a response to a question about access to scientific information in French that included this measure. Contacted for comment, she declined our request for an interview. However, Peter Thornton, her senior communications advisor, emailed University Affairs to say, “We would be happy to consider possible solutions to strengthen the place of French in science, should the government wish to give us a role in this important mission.”

While he finds the recommendation interesting, Dr. Quirion fears that such a body would be subject to the whims of politics. “It would be better to have it attached to the federal granting councils,” he said. Dr. Normand, for his part, agreed with the idea, provided that a proliferation of this type of structure can be avoided. “The Action Plan for Official Languages 2023–2028, published last April, already announced the creation of an expert committee for French-language research,” he noted.

The ball is now in the federal government’s court. Ottawa is expected to formulate a response to the committee’s report in the coming months, according to a written statement from a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. “This government prides itself on being the first to recognize the decline of French in Canada, well, prove it!” Mr. Blanchette-Joncas said. “The biggest language crisis in 2023 is in science.”

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