Comments on Canada’s science and technology trajectory

I just sent this note in response to Industry Canada’s consultation paper, Seizing Canada’s Moment, and I encourage anyone who has an opinion about Canada’s science and technology strategy to write in as well. You can send your feedback to science-tech-innovation-consultation@ic.gc.ca by February 7, 2014.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone at Industry Canada will actually read my note, nor do I think it’ll actually make any kind of a difference, but I thought I should at least make some effort to engage. I didn’t want to pass up an explicitly offered opportunity to speak up.

I tend to shy away from posting anything overtly political on my professional blog, but I’ve made this one exception. Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for drawing my attention to the original consultation paper.

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To the Honourable James Moore, Stephen Harper, and Industry Canada:

I’m writing in response to Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation, the consultation paper in which you solicited “the views of stakeholders from all sectors of the ST&I [science, technology & innovation] system—including universities, colleges and polytechnics, the business community, and Canadians—to help identify solutions that reflect the realities of today’s ever-changing global innovation landscape.” As one of those stakeholders, both as a science communicator and as an engaged citizen, I’d like to offer a few of my thoughts about the Government of Canada’s ST&I strategy. My opinions here are informed by my handful of years in physics research as well as my career of over a dozen years as a writer and editor:

  • In 2002 I founded a national journal for undergraduate physics students to introduce them to the process of peer review and scholarly publication; the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal published until 2010.
  • I have, since 2004, edited more than 175 academic journal articles, dissertations, book chapters, and books in physics, earth sciences, chemistry, and engineering, among other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
  • I have also edited popular science books and am co-author of an upcoming book about personalized medicine for a general audience.

I’m neither the scientist making the groundbreaking discoveries nor the entrepreneur applying research results to create a new product or process, but I’d like to believe that those of us in communications have a critical role to play in the exchange of information and knowledge. We are, as Peter Levesque of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization has said, the grout that joins the tiles.

Your consultation paper includes several questions for discussion:

Business innovation

  • Building on the advice provided by the Expert Panel on Federal Support for Research and Development, what more can be done to improve business investment in R&D and innovation?
  • What actions could be taken, by the government or others, to enhance the mobilization of knowledge and technology from government laboratories and universities, colleges and polytechnics to the private sector?

Mobilization of knowledge and technology depends, fundamentally, on a free and open exchange of information.

Although I applaud the country’s researchers for helping Canada become “the only G7 country to increase its number of scientific papers about the world average in recent years,” these papers do precious little good if other researchers and people in business can’t

  • find them,
  • read them, and
  • understand them.

Research can’t be done in a (figurative) vacuum; new discoveries are fuelled by previous knowledge, and both researchers and innovators in business need full, unimpeded access to this body of knowledge to drive scientific progress. What Canada needs is the following:

  • A robust network of libraries that serves as a comprehensive archive of scientific information, as well as a metadata-rich cataloguing system that allows Canadians to search the entire network’s content in a centralized location. This kind of network would allow everyone in the ST&I sector to easily find publications on the latest research, as well as encourage interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Some of the most innovative ideas can arise when mathematicians talk to musicians, or when architects talk to psychologists. Further, a centralized catalogue would let Canadians find not only all papers published in open access journals (see next item) but also those published under a “green open access” models, where the paper appears in a pay-to-access journal but is self-archived by the researcher for free access in an institutional repository.
  • Open access to all Canadian-made research. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes  of Health Research (CIHR) recognize that if they have funded research, we Canadian taxpayers have paid for it, and we deserve to be able to see the results of that research—i.e., the publications—without having to pay for them again in subscription or access fees. Privatizing the National Research Council Press (today Canadian Science Publishing) such that it has to put its papers behind a paywall is a step in exactly the wrong direction. Paywalls stifle innovation because many of those businesses that could be applying the research have neither the access to an academic library’s subscriptions nor the budget to pay $30 to read each paper, without knowing whether it will ultimately be useful. Mandating open access, however, although a good first step, isn’t enough: to offset the loss of revenue from the reader, open access publishers often have to charge the researcher or the researcher’s institution for the privilege to publish. A system of Government of Canada subsidies to cover part or all of those publishing costs would allow scientists to focus their budgets on research rather than on publication.
  • Plain language knowledge translation and mobilization. High-level research can involve specialized language which, coupled with academia’s deeply ingrained habit of producing dense writing, can hinder understanding of new discoveries. In the long term, the ST&I sector would benefit from a plain language overhaul of all of its communications. For now, communication professionals skilled at distilling research knowledge into usable information for other researchers, industry, policy makers, and ordinary citizens will have a critical role to play in bridging the gap between scientific discovery and innovation.

Developing Innovative and Entrepreneurial People

  • How can Canada continue to develop, attract and retain the world’s top research talent at our businesses, research institutions, colleges and polytechnics, and universities?

“Canada has rising numbers of graduates with doctoral degrees in science and engineering,” according to your consultation paper. “This valuable resource of highly qualified and skilled individuals needs to be better leveraged.” As you acknowledge, these researchers are trained, world-class experts. Wouldn’t it behoove us to listen to what they have to say?

To attract and retain skilled researchers, we have to foster an environment in which they feel fulfilled and secure in their work. In other words, we need a government commitment to evidence-based policy making and a system that allows researchers room to explore. If the government wants industry to work with our scientists, it should be prepared to serve as a role model and do the same. Science is about discovering the laws of nature—these are laws none of us can defy. Only by learning more about them, rather than denying them, will we be able to harness them to our advantage.

Further, for our scientists to succeed, we have to give them room to fail, without the fear that they’ll lose their jobs or grants. Researchers who “push the frontiers of knowledge” are bound to run into a few dead ends. When we learn about scientific progress, we get a sanitized version of history, where discoveries are made regularly, linearly. What non-scientists don’t see are the frustrations, the setbacks, and the outright failures that come with every step forward. These difficulties are part of science, but in the rush to commercialize research, the value they add to the sum of human knowledge is likely to be overlooked.

Excellence in Public and Post-Secondary Research and Development

  • How might Canada build upon its success as a world leader in discovery-driven research?
  • Is the Government of Canada’s suite of programs appropriately designed to best support research excellence? 

Although I understand that this government’s focus is on developing commercial applications of science, the fact is that you can’t apply what you don’t have. Investment in pure science is just as important as developing new technologies; what discoveries will turn out to have useful applications in the future are almost impossible to predict with certainty. Who could have imagined that Max Planck’s musings about quantum theory in the early 1900s would pave the way for the now-ubiquitous laser? And if Galileo hadn’t turned his telescope to the sky—out of curiosity rather than for commerce—and discovered that moons orbit other planets, we might still be terrified of eclipses and bewildered by the tides. (Incidentally, how many years do you figure the whole of civilization was set back by the Church’s persecution of Galileo and its denial of his theories?)

Support for pure science is also what will bring us the next generation of inquisitive, creative, scientific minds. James Day, a UBC superconductivity and physics education researcher, once said to me, “Kids who become interested in science usually get into it in one of two ways: through dinosaurs or through stars.” Neither paleontology nor astronomy are probable sources for the kinds of commercialization this government seems to be after—but to neglect these and other pure sciences in favour of those you somehow deem more likely to yield new products or processes is to deprive future generations of Canadians the opportunity of carrying on our scientific researchers’ impressive legacy.

Sources

Gulrez Shah Azhar. “Access to information is crucial for science.” The Lancet, Vol. 377, April 23, 2011, p. 1404.

Emily Chung. “No more free access to Canadian science journals,” CBC News. March 8, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/no-more-free-access-to-canadian-science-journals-1.1044255.

Industry Canada. Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation. Ottawa: Industry Canada, 2014.

Carl Lagoze and Herbert Van de Sompel. “The open archives initiative: building a low-barrier interoperability framework.” Proceedings of the ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, Roanoke VA, June 24–28, 2001, pp. 54-62.

Peter Levesque. “Knowledge mobilization as readiness for care.” Institute for Knowledge Mobilization. November 24, 2010. http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/261

Richard Van Noorden. “Open access: The true cost of science publishing” Nature, Vol. 495, March 27, 2013, pp. 426–429. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

3 Responses to Comments on Canada’s science and technology trajectory

  1. As an ordinary Canadian, who loves science and research, (I volunteer as a Citizen Scientist with Cornell & Bird Studies Canada, by counting birds!) I applaud your submission. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing and submitting what I could have only hoped to say to this government. You have written this so perfectly in plain language that even the present Government should be able to understand the value of your words, should they bother to read it. I hope beyond all hope that they do read it and that they do take heed of your words.

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