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What will happen if Canada keeps disrespecting its scientists? Ask Italy.

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One of the most popular Italian movies of late a documentary called “Italy: Love It or Leave It”. The company has seen an unprecedented brain-drain in recent years which many blame on a government that scorns academics.

The Chinese government, facing minimal opposition and emboldened by its recent return to power via the 18th Party Congress, has been keeping government scientists under exceedingly close scrutiny lately, effectively retarding that nation’s economic progress in demanding that its scientists either toe the party line or risk losing their jobs.

As keen as The Party has been to keep its eye firmly on the bottom line, hoping that growth and jobs will take the sting out of a little marginal dissent, it also runs the risk of hobbling the very engine of that same economic progress: a scientific community that is free to conduct basic research. Never mind occasionally being allowed to critique government scientific policy, China’s scientists are not free to speak at all unless first vetted by Party monitors.

Wait, did I say China? I meant Canada. Go back and read that again.

This week, the government of Ontario stepped forward to rescue the Experimental Lakes Area, an absolutely unique and world-class freshwater research facility located in the Kenora area. The project had been abandoned by the federal government, leaving the buildings and equipment, owned by an international cohort of scientists, in limbo. Many scientists were not only anxious about the future of their ongoing experiments there, but also eager to recoup their valuable and sensitive equipment, which they thought might be padlocked by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The last minute reprieve is the latest debacle in what can only be described as the Tory’s contentious relationship with Canada’s scientific community. They can’t even leave scientists in other countries alone. The other day, our Natural Resources minister, Joe Oliver, took time out from a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., to deride as “nonsense” the claims of James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year that “if Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

“Ultimately this comes down to a choice,” said Oliver. “The U.S. can choose Canada — a friend, neighbour and ally — as its source of oil imports, or it can choose to continue to import oil from less friendly, less stable countries with weaker — or perhaps no — environmental standards.” Why are cabinet ministers unable to frame any discourse in terms that don’t involve issuing an ultimatum designed to separate everyone into “us” or “child pornographers”, as was the case with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews last year? In any case, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to spot the pattern of shutting down and obstructing any scientific discourse that even hints at the existence of global warming.

What are the ramifications of hectoring, bullying and muzzling Canadian scientists? Ask Italy, where the brain drain of scientists leaving has impacted the entire country for the worse. Italian paper La Repubblica estimates that in the past two-decades Italy has lost 35% of its best researchers, and, among other things, about 4 billion euros of missing patent revenues.

Enrico Predazzi, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chairman of the Center Agorà Scienza at The University of Torino, notes that Italy’s R&D spending as a percentage of GDP lags far behind the rest of Europe. The result is Italian scientists are leaving because they are highly valued around the world, but not within their own country.

In 2010, after years of denying the problem existed, the Berlusconi government made its second attempt to lure academics back to the country. But Sonia Morano-Foadi, a researcher at Oxford Brookes University who interviewed more than 50 émigré Italian scientists in 2006, says the data from her interview subjects echoes Predazzi. Most were concerned about the country’s low investment into research and development, which the government hasn’t addressed.

R&D spending is a big deal, and you don’t have to be a scientist to learn the lessons of Italy. A cursory look at countries with high ratios of R&D to overall GDP vs. those with the opposite condition says it all. The former category includes South Korea, Japan, Israel, Finland and the United States. The latter category? Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Colombia, Greece, Sudan.

Nature Magazine last year took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the Canadian government, imploring it “to set its scientists free.”
Nature Magazine last year took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the Canadian government, imploring it “to set its scientists free.”

At 1.8%, Canada falls between the very best and the worst, but still tops Italy’s 1.1%.

A little credit where it’s due, the Conservative government has upstaged the United States by initiating the undeniably good Start-Up Visa program, acknowledged the problem of Canada’s lagging research and development, and, recently, bolstered the Canadian Field Robotics Network. All worthy undertakings. Again, though, what good is any of it if the very scientists on whom we rely for this work to bear meaningful fruit for the nation are not allowed to play any role other than to stand by and applaud a minister at a ribbon cutting ceremony?

Pathetically, it falls to magazines like Nature to put the case when our own scientists can’t (at risk of losing their jobs for voicing these concerns), taking the unusual step last year of writing an open letter to the Canadian government, imploring it “to set its scientists free.”

Some pressure is being applied by a newly launched campaign by the Canadian Association of University Teachers called “Get Science Right”, designed explicitly to shame the current government into doing the right thing by science. “In the last federal budget, the government provided not a single cent in new funding for basic science — the research that is the foundation for real innovation,” writes James L. Turk, CAUT’s executive director. “From the muzzling of scientists to the serious under-funding of basic research at our universities and colleges, the federal government is making dumb choices that will have serious consequences for all Canadians.”

Canada’s scientific community has two and a half years of house arrest remaining until the next election. We’ll be eager to hear what they have to say when they’re eventually allowed to speak.

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