Skip navigation

U.S.-Canada divide is stark on science

The Obama administration's multibillion-dollar investments coincide with the Canadian government's decision to cut $148-million in funding

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama committed his administration to fostering the greatest increase in scientific research and education in American history Monday, at the very time that Stephen Harper is cutting funding.

“I am here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 per cent of our GDP to research and development,” the President declared at an address to the National Academy of Sciences.

“We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race,” he went on, saying that his administration's initiatives represent “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.”

The Obama administration's multibillion-dollar investments coincide with the Canadian government's decision to cut $148-million in funding to the three agencies that support basic research at Canadian universities.

The Conservatives point in response to $2.75-billion they have dedicated to university infrastructure and scientific equipment.

But the two countries are pursuing fundamentally different approaches to funding research in the midst of a recession and with manufacturing industries in chronic decline.

While Prime Minister Harper concentrates on targeted funding in certain specific areas, in hopes of generating marketable ideas that promote economic growth, President Obama is pursing a comprehensive approach aimed at fundamentally reorienting government, schools, universities and the private sector in favour of science and technology.

The goal is to reinvent the American economy as one in which industries spring from new discoveries based on clean-energy research.

“The nation that leads the world in 21st-century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st-century global economy,” the President said. “America can and must be that nation.”

That strategy is in stark contrast to the piecemeal and even punitive approach that this and previous federal Canadian governments have taken to government-funded research. The risk for Canada is that it will fall behind. The risk for the United States is that it will waste billions and fall deeper into debt chasing wild geese.

The American approach begins, Mr. Obama stressed, with a renewed government commitment to basic research, the very area where Mr. Harper targeted his cuts.

“An investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all,” he said. “And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.

“That's why the private sector underinvests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because, while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.”

It was in exactly those areas—government grants for basic research—that the Harper government targeted its cuts.

Most of what Mr. Obama described in his speech included measures already announced, including $21-billion for research and development within the economic stimulus package, and a further $75-billion in his proposed budget. His 3-per-cent-of-GDP goal also envisions private-sector investments that complement federal government initiatives.

Mr. Obama also added to the alphabet soup of government agencies and initiatives, by creating ARPA-E (do you really want to know what it stands for?), which will research new, clean forms of energy; PCAST, a presidential panel of science advisers—Stephen Harper chopped the position of prime ministerial science adviser—and RE-ENERGYSE, to encourage students to study and research energy-related science.

And the President placed a special emphasis in an area where the Canadian federal government is silent: encouraging students to take science and math, while improving the quality of what they learn.

He promised increased education funding for states that improve their science labs, strengthen their math and science curriculum, permit qualified professionals without teaching certificates to enter the classroom and encourage science graduates to enter the teaching profession.

It is unlikely that any of this could be achieved without increasing the pay of math and science teachers beyond that offered to teachers in other subjects.

The Canadian federal government, in contrast, effectively plays no role in elementary and secondary education, although Canadian students routinely trounce their American counterparts in international math and science tests, thanks to sound provincial programs.

The President's vision of economic renewal through scientific research and new discoveries in clean energies accords with an American attraction to great national goals, from settling the West to putting a man on the moon. Canadians tend to be more incremental and pragmatic in their approach.

It may be why we have realized, especially in recent years, fewer national dreams. It may also be why our governments are far less deeply in debt.

But rarely has the contrast been so stark: Barack Obama would recreate the American economy, restoring its postwar lustre as a scientific juggernaut.

Stephen Harper would watch the till.

Recommend this article? 29 votes

Back to top