Nature 455, 263 (18 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455263a; Published online 17 September 2008

The other North American election


As Canadian scientists work to maintain their international reputation, a little encouragement from the election candidates would be appreciated.

Canadians go to the polls to elect a new government on 14 October. Although the initial stages of the campaign focused on the environment (see page 268), the two major parties, Conservative and Liberal, have said little or nothing about science policy in general. This is a shame. Canada saw big boosts to its research funding from the late 1990s to 2000, including the creation of Canada Research Chairs, which brought good people into the country, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which pumped billions into infrastructure. Those investments have been maintained, and science funding is still on the rise. But the gains are vulnerable in a competitive international market, warns the prime minister's former science adviser, Arthur Carty: "We have to be careful, having reached the top of the mountain, that we don't slide down the other side very quickly."

Both parties promise to provide financial incentives to innovative companies, especially those involving green technologies. But broader questions of research funding have so far not come up in the campaign. This may reflect a lack of difference between the parties on the issue, or perhaps just a lack of urgency; with the exception of climate change, the general mood on science policy seems to be 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Many Canadian scientists are complaining about an undue emphasis on commercially focused research over long-term basic research.

But many argue that it is broke. The retired right-wing politician Preston Manning slammed the system in the Canadian media last December after the recent shortage of nuclear isotopes. He lambasted Canada for its lack of a federal science department or ministry and the dearth of scientific or engineering training among parliamentarians. The office of the National Science Advisor was abolished earlier this year when Carty stepped down (see Nature 451, 505; 2008). And the committee that now advises the prime minister on matters of science is packed with industrial as well as scientific experts.

Indeed, many Canadian scientists are seeing, and complaining about, an undue emphasis on commercially focused research over long-term basic research. Such complaints are heard in many other countries too. But in Canada the problem is compounded by the fact that the current government has channelled new science funds into four restrictive priority areas — natural resources, environment, health and information technology — and that scientists are often required to scrounge matching funds from elsewhere to top up their grants. Furthermore, the government this month defined sub-priority areas that mix in obvious commercial influences: alongside 'Arctic monitoring', for example, sits 'energy production from the oil sands'.

The Canadian election's focus on climate, at least, is welcome. But one always hopes that research funding will warrant a mention in political manifestos. That hasn't happened yet in Canada — and it should.