By David Tinker
I hope readers will forgive a column about personal reminiscence just this once. You will see though that there is a point to it. When I embarked on a career in basic medical research, more than 50 years ago, Canada was, frankly, a scientific backwater, still looking back on the discovery of Insulin, which had occurred 30 years earlier. This was in no way a reflection on the ability and calibre of the scientists of those days. The professors who taught me as an undergraduate were among the most able of any I have known, and their teaching laid a solid and rigourous foundation. No, the difficulty was lack of adequate funding, and more important, lack of critical mass. A researcher who had to struggle to find funds to support one or two graduate students could not compete with a lab with an annual budget of $100,000 (equivalent to a million dollars today), a dozen graduate students and half a dozen post-doctoral fellows recruited from the cream of international scholars.
Those labs were all in the US, and no matter how patriotic, top flight researchers, people like later Nobel winner Oliver Smithies (at that time working in Toronto) were drawn to American institutions, as indeed was I. After post-graduate work in Seattle though, I did return to Canada and was part of a generation of scientists who slowly built up Canada's basic research capacity in many fields. On my retirement I could reflect that this country had become an international leader in many fields (no thanks to me!), with no less than four Nobel prizes for work done in Canada in the last 40 years. A key part of this growth was the vision of successive federal governments in supporting fundamental research. They recognized that basic "pure" research is the engine that drives technological progress. You can either support it or become a branch plant -- or worse.
The point of this story though is that a country can very easily lose its scientific cutting edge. This indeed happened in the US during the misguided years of the Bush administration, when science and scientists were identified as the enemy by right wing ideologues. The result? Now among the 30 most developed nations in the OECD, the US is ranked 25th in math and science education (Canada is sixth). Without an influx of foreign trained scientists (including Canadians) the big US research universities would be in serious trouble, because American PhDs are not being trained in numbers sufficient to offset death and retirement of American born scientists.
Will the same fate await Canadian science? All the pointers indicate that the Harper government is very anti-science, except for applied research which directly supports the needs of big business. Basic research, particularly in the area of biology, is on the chopping block. This is a recipe for mediocrity, perfected by the chefs of the Republican Party. As I write this column a demonstration by university scientists from across Canada is taking place in Ottawa, protesting the draconian (but well disguised) cuts in support for science in the last omnibus budget bill. I hope that Canadian citizens care about science. How stupid it would be to throw away the enormous progress we have made, for once it has gone it will take another half century to rebuild it.
David Tinker writes a weekly column for The Annapolis County Spectator.