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Margin Notes

The “big picture” perspective on science policy

A few observations from the Canadian Science Policy Conference held last week in Ottawa.


I attended the Canadian Science Policy Conference last week in Ottawa. It was a very informative and worthwhile event, and I’ll try to report more on it when I have a chance to go through all of my notes. For the moment, though, I’ve assembled a few quotes from a panel session with three interesting individuals who were asked to present the “big picture” perspective on science and innovation policy. The three were Ian Chubb, chief scientist of the Australian Government; Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan and member of the STIC (Science, Technology and Innovation Council) State of the Nation Working Group; and Rémi Quirion, the recently appointed chief scientist of Quebec and chairman of the board of the Fonds de recherche du Québec. Here’s a bit of what they had to say:

The challenges ahead

Dr. Chubb: “The reality is that we presently have seven billion people on the planet and we can only feed six billion. Two hundred million of those underfed people are children. The population is projected to grow to nine billion by 2050. If we think that humanity will be able to survive by doing more of what we do now, we’re crazy. We have to do things differently. We have to do things better. … We simply cannot go on thinking that all we have to do is make incremental changes in what we presently do.”


Dr. Quirion: “I was meeting earlier this week with colleagues at the NIH (National Institutes of Health in the U.S.) – I trained at the NIH and still know a lot of people there and developed partnerships with them. The fact that the economy is not too, too strong in the U.S. means that they are more open to collaboration and partnerships. They are very open to collaboration and partnerships. We have just hired someone, Julie Payette the former astronaut, who will be the Quebec rep in Washington D.C. to discuss with the National Science Foundation and with NIH, to see how we can partner more. So during tough economic times there is more opportunity for partnerships.

Politicians and policy

Dr. Quirion: There are some politicians that understand better than others the importance of science. But of course they are all concerned about elections in three or four years’ time. They want to have something to show.

Prof. MacKinnon: “A quality that’s necessary here is patience. We all are familiar with one of the rallying cries of impatience: what are we getting for all of these investments in R&D? The reality is that the contemporary, the modern investments in R&D, are of relatively recent origin. I worry that in our rush to achieve results we may not have the necessary patience to build the long-term capacity we require for us to achieve.”

Scientific literacy

Prof. MacKinnon: “Politicians will attribute importance to what their electors attribute importance. And given the troubling state of scientific literacy in the general population, we can’t be terribly confident that the politicians think their electorates think science is important. So what do we do about that? I think a much broader public education on all of these issues is terribly important.”

Teaching science in K-12

Dr. Chubb: “The troubling thing for me is the school education system. I don’t think we support our teachers well enough so that they are comfortable enough with contemporary science to enable them to excite and enthuse their students in primary and secondary school. There was a survey done a couple of years ago of schools in Australia and what was being taught on a particular day. A very significant proportion, around about 70 percent, of teachers were teaching out of their field on that day. I think it must be very hard for these teachers to confront a class, to try to teach them something with which they themselves feel uncomfortable.”

Training of scientists

Dr. Chubb: “We have 8.5 people with a doctorate per thousand of our workforce [in Australia]. But most of these PhD holders classify themselves as researchers. So we have very few people – there are some, but very few – with that high level of training in the general workforce. When I ask employers why not, they say, ‘Because they want too much money, they think they know everything, they don’t work in teams, and anyway it takes too long to train them to work in our industry.’ … We need to tell the universities they’ve got to change the way they produce PhD graduates to develop overtly some of the more generic skills they would need to be able to work outside of academe, and at the same time to psychologically prepare them not to see that as second best.”

Policy goals for Canada

Prof. MacKinnon: “We’ve had a lot of reports on science and technology and innovation and productivity. We’ve had the Conference Board report, the competition review panel, the Council of Canadian Academies report, two STIC reports, we’ve now have the Jenkins report. And the themes are fairly common and constant across the board. … The trick now is to recognize that we’ve reported enough and we’ve got to move into the realm of policy – focussed, serious policies and goals – and see if we can achieve it. Can we come to some kind of sense of what we’re trying to do here? We need to decide, are we content with the fair to middling performance or are we interested in being a leader?”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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