What Canada stands to lose in the war on science

The reign of the current Canadian Conservative government has been relentlessly hostile to science. Government scientists are not allowed to publish or speak to the press without permission from political officers who censor even the most innocuous statements. Basic science research has been slashed. Given that the Tories' real power base is the tar sands petroleum industry -- the dirtiest form of oil extraction being practiced anywhere in the world today -- it's not surprising. Scientists in Canada are fed up. 2,000 scientists staged a "funeral for evidence" on Parliament Hill this summer.

C. Scott Findlay's Toronto Star editorial on the Harper government's war on science and evidence is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what Canada stands to lose from systematic, relentless attacks on science, truth and evidence-based policy.

Even so, close examination of the $1.1 billion investment shows that much has been allocated to industry and commercial science partnerships. Meanwhile, the proportion of funding allocated to basic research, such as the budget of the Discovery Grants program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, has been dropping steadily since 2006.

The science enterprise is like a pyramid. At the base are scientists engaged in the importunate probing of nature’s corpus — say, characterizing the molecular signalling pathways whose activation predisposes cells to become cancerous. Balancing on their shoulders are scientists who apply this knowledge to existing problems — say, developing a cancer drug that will block some of these signalling pathways. And teetering at the apex are scientists engaged in the industrialization of applied research — say, finding efficient ways of producing cancer drugs in large quantities at a reasonable price.

As children, we learned that the larger the base, the taller the pyramid that can be supported: the more basic research, the more opportunities for commercialization and industrialization. Moreover, an uneven base — areas of science where there is comparatively little basic research — not only means no corresponding opportunities for application or industrialization but, worse still, increases the chances of the whole structure toppling over. So too does overloading the top levels: after all, even the most robust basic scientist can support only so many of her applied and industrialization colleagues on her shoulders.

Governing in the dark: Ottawa’s dangerous unscientific revolution (via Confessions of a Science Librarian)