We Undermine Science if We Overmanage Research

October 2005

Thanks to the commitment of Prime Minister Paul Martin when he was finance minister, Canadian science and technology is beginning to be funded at a level at which it can compete on the global stage.

Science, which is the pursuit of new understanding, is done almost exclusively in our universities and is the engine that propels technology. But to have world beating science we must provide our best scientists with the best scientific environment. At last, we can afford to. How are we doing?

Forty of Canada's most distinguished scientists in the life sciences, writing to the U.S. journal Science last week, claimed that we are failing to support our best.

The authors restricted themselves to one issue: the requirement that to receive government support, researchers must have "co‑funding" – importantly, from Canadian industry. This requirement for matching funds applies to virtually every new source of research money over the past decade, federal or provincial. But if the intention is to validate Canadian research, in advance of doing it, by identifying a substantial need, the effect is to restrict research to work with a predictable outcome.

This is not a good way to select science.

The 40 letter‑writers summarize their case by saying, "By eschewing scientific excellence as the primary consideration, co‑funding programs imperil scientific credibility." In short, we can pick the wrong people.

The circumstance that triggered the letter to Science was a competition for funds administered by Genome Canada. Out of the 120 proposals, said the Science letter, about 50 per cent were rejected on non‑scientific grounds: Co‑funding requirements had not been met in the view of those administering the program. These administrators would, one may be sure, yield to none in their commitment to excellence. They merely reserve the right to select form among the best those who, in their judgment, are the most relevant. But these may not be the best.

So Canada prepares to scale Olympus’s highest peaks, having selected climbers without giving first place to mountaineering ability – and the letter to Science pointed out only one example of the Canadian propensity to overmanage science.

Our scientists are routinely selected on a wide variety of grounds, being given a numerical rating for management skills, networking, collaboration, and degree of interdisciplinary of their work. It is like picking out a Glenn Gould on the basis of appearance at the keyboard.

The scientific community should embrace the stalwart 40’s attempt to address the overmanagement of Canadian science. In our zeal to protect the taxpayers’ investment, we’re in danger of squandering it.

Excellence in science can be judged. Scientific prizes, for example, are not given by lot. Excellence is a rare and precious resource, wasted if redefined as relevance. Fortunately for those who value science for its fruits (that is, all of us), it is virtually impossible to make a major discovery that is useless. The only way to render science impotent is to trivialize it.

Yet the authors of a recent commentary on this page ("When it comes to funding research, value should count") do so. "Scientific peer review," say these science policy scholars, "only looks at scientific validity." Not so. The most pedantic piece of work that adds a decimal place to a well‑known number is "valid." It suffers, however, in the eyes of any peer, from the fatal flaw of being uninteresting. It reveals nothing.

What is excellent, by contrast, is a revelation. It is precisely because it surprises us that it is resistant to being planned. To find 40 scientists willing to challenge authority is also a surprise. Canadian science is coming of age.