Public Science, Private Interests: Culture and Commerce in Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence.
Janet Atkinson-Grosjean contends in her book Public Science, Private Interests that, while the Canadian federal government's strategic science policies over the. past twenty years reflect powerful ideological and policy drivers to achieve "neoliberal science objectives," in the main the values of an "open science" model (open inquiry and the free flow of ideas) still dominate academic science in Canada. She suggests that, to the extent these policies are intended to change the culture of science in Canada towards commercial relevance, they have met with minimal success to date--a result that does not appear to disturb her.
These findings may come as a relief to those who stand in defence of a pure open science model. Interestingly, however, solace and insight may be drawn from her work by those who believe government can play a positive and enabling role in fostering scientific research and its translation to practical use.
Established in 1989, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program has funded twenty-four different research networks to date in such areas as human health and development, photonics, natural resources and the environment, and advanced manufacturing technologies. The networks are selected through an open competition and an international peer-reviewed selection process overseen by Canada's national research granting councils.
Public Science, Private Interests points to the considerable strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) of the NCE model as a means to proactively change what Lipsey, Carlaw, and Bekar have called in their study Economic Transformations (2005) the "facilitating structure" of technological change and economic growth. For example, AtkinsonGrosjean finds that the Canadian Genetic Diseases Network (CGDN) has helped remove the stigma sometimes attached to translational research effort within the scientific community itself.
Public Science, Private Interests opens with a discussion on the tension between the two cross-cutting dimensions of public/private and basic/applied science and the space between them in which "the 'open science' model and the 'network model' offer their competing explanations" (pp. 38-39). The bureaucratic battles in developing the NCE program are then reviewed, illustrating the tensions between those advocating public science as the means to research excellence and those wishing to focus research on commercial relevance. The influence of these competing views over time is documented: from the program's establishment in 1989 with $240 million in funding; through its renewal in 1993 with an expanded range of objectives tilting the program to commercial relevance (training of highly qualified personnel and knowledge and technology exchange and exploitation); and to the 1997 decision to make the program "permanent" but with a sunset clause capping funding for each network at a maximum of fourteen years.
Notably, Atkinson-Grosjean concludes that the fourteen-year sunset clause may be a policy error because it pushed NCES to fOCUS on their future profit and survival rather than on providing "a fertile climate for research and translation" (p. 199). However, the public interest and even public science may not always be well served by an open-ended commitment to any publicly funded science program, given bureaucratic incentives to extend a program's life long after its usefulness may have faded.
Atkinson-Grosjean presents a case study of the CGDN to raise a range of important issues on the role of governments in shaping scientific culture and influencing the path of scientific research. She asks how spatially networked the COON (and possibly other NCES) actually are. CGDN'S main clusters remained at the three original institutions in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal and commanded more than 70 percent of the CGDN'S $33.5 million research budget for the 1991-2000 period. She concludes that the 'network' metaphor is misleading: "'spokes and hubs' may be a more accurate descriptor. Well-established researchers and locations are favoured" (p. 90). The fact that funding flowed to where scientific excellence is found is likely good news for those concerned with building scale and focus in Canadian research effort rather than using the program as an instrument for regional economic development. However, Atkinson-Grosjean cautions that, through supporting the institutional status quo, NCE program design contributes to exclusion and concentration and reduces the diversity of the Canadian "science system" (p. 103).
She asks how greater transparency and accountability in public funding of science can be achieved. With regard to the CGDN and its mix of public and private funding, she concludes that "it is impossible to tease out of this complex of funding sources the results that are attributable to the network and what would have occurred if there had been no CGDN. The same is true of the program as a whole" (p. 104). Whether or not one agrees with her harsh criticism of the CGDN'S reporting of results, she correctly highlights that a continuing challenge for all governments is measuring results of public spending on R&D, either in terms of specific outputs from R&D or in terms of outcomes for society as a whole.
Atkinson-Grosjean finds that the CGDN was highly elitist and exclusionary, with membership being by invitation only and extended by the same inner (male) group of scientists that controlled the network from the start and with no room in the network for lay representation of broad public interest concerns. Such issues are surely not unique to the NCE model.
Atkinson-Grosjean's aversion to elite science is well founded to the extent she refers to centralized direction for scientific research. At the same time, scientific excellence may by its nature be an elite activity. To what extent would the selection of NCES (and individual membership within NCES) based on social inclusiveness or other social policy criteria impact on Canada's science capacity? Would it strengthen or hinder Canada's ability to deliver results at a time when governments in larger economies are steadily increasing the resources they devote to scientific excellence and commercial relevance?
It remains that Public Science, Private Interests is a valuable addition to the regrettably small body of scholarly work on Canadian science policy. Some readers will be disappointed that Atkinson-Grosjean declines to pass definitive judgment on whether or not, in the words of the Industry Canada mantra, NCES have "made a difference." Yet she should not be faulted on this point. As the story goes (perhaps apocryphal) of Zhou Enlai's reply to Henry Kissinger's question on what he thought of the French Revolution, it may be that "it is too early to say."
Ian Currie is an independent public policy analyst in Ottawa. He was formerly a policy analyst with Industry Canada and the Canadian Department of Finance. He also served on the negotiating team for the Canada--US free trade negotiations.
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|Publication:||Canadian Public Administration|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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