It was an iconic image. When The Economist published a cover image of a moose sporting hip sunglasses to illustrate “Canada’s new spirit” five years ago, the prestigious British magazine intended to highlight the country’s tolerant, progressive governance that complemented our surging economy. The unspoken subtext was that the image of the northern hick had evolved into one who was cool and prosperous, especially when compared to the next-door neighbour, the once popular but rapidly fattening former high-school star quarterback living off past glories.
How fast the tables turn. Last week, Canada was briefly honoured with the first foreign visit of U.S. President Barack Obama. When Obama shook hands with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa at the start of the president’s whirlwind five-hour visit February 19, the contrast could not have been sharper, and I am not referring to their physical appearances.
While both leaders were coming off election wins and legislative victories to implement their respective spending plans designed to stimulate an economy that is shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs on either side of the border, the resemblance ended there.
Canada’s Conservative government has put forward a deficit-financed economic stimulus plan – passed by a minority Parliament thanks to the craven capitulation of newly installed Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff – that has somehow managed to cut funding to some of the country’s most important and promising science and research programs.
The scientific approach of the Harper Conservatives is a mirror of the former Bush administration, with its militant anti-knowledge agenda that slashed funding and banned research on a laundry list of religious right and corporate targets – including stem cells, sex education, climate change and alternative energy, among many others. U.S. scientists (a good number of whom had since found refuge for their cutting-edge research in Canada but are now considering a return home) loudly celebrated the end of the Bush administration.
Canada’s recent federal budget, however, loaded with stimulus spending on roads and bridges, included $147.9-million in cuts to the granting agencies that fund university-based research in Canada. Among the hardest hit is Genome Canada, a non-profit organization that funds genomic and stem-cell research. Current government funding will not allow it to meet spending commitments as of 2010.
The funding catastrophe could lead to a new and devastating brain drain, forcing the country’s top researchers to emigrate, while threatening promising medical research and forcing Canadian institutions to pull out of key international projects.
President Obama has put science and innovation at the very top of his administration’s priorities. The passing of his emergency-spending bill the week he visited Canada featured $10 billion US for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main funding agency for medical research in the United States. Meanwhile, the new president has appointed leading scientists to his inner circle, among them Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as his Secretary of Energy, and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus and MIT genome biologist Eric Lander as chairs of the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
As Michael Hayden, a world-renowned geneticist at the University of British Columbia who was dubbed “researcher of the year” by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, put it: “Obama has made it clear that smart is the new cool.”
Our economic future depends on innovation and knowledge creation, Hayden told the Globe and Mail. “Relatively small measures… could transform new discoveries into products and services – which would create sustainable knowledge-based jobs for the future,” he said. The country has done an admirable job erecting wonderful buildings in which to do research, “but the operating grants to do long-term research are not there.”
Given the Conservatives’ amply demonstrated penchant for vengeful and politically motivated budget decisions, Hayden is speaking out at great risk to his own professional future in this country. In Canada, in 2009, to be scientifically smart is to be politically suspect.
The irony is blatant. Only a couple years ago, the U.S. government was stigmatized by a medieval paranoia about – indeed, a rejection of – modern science. Scientists were hounded by influential political hit squads whose ignorant denunciations could lead to an immediate cut in funding for their projects, no matter how worthy or vital.
North of the border we no longer have the right to be smug. Dumb is our new reality, and that isn’t cool.