Remember to say thank
you, again and again
by Martha Crago
canada, the phrases “Science is back”
and “Canada is back on the world
stage” have been heard repeatedly
over the last several months. They are
like music to the ears of many of us.
We can also now talk about, write about and
apply for research funding on climate change
without having to camouflage it – or worse yet,
cut it out of our proposals.
The change from a year ago is so profound
that some days it feels almost blinding, as if one
were walking outside into the sunshine after
years of being in a darkened room. Attending
the American Academy for the Advancement of
Science meeting in Washington, D.C. this past
winter, I overheard on four different occasions
American women academics say to each other:
“Do you know that they actually have a minister
of science and that she is a woman and that she
is actually here.” Our times have changed. Will
they change again? Yes, certainly, they will.
Some international colleagues asked me
recently whether Canada still had economic
problems. They were struck by the news of the
reinvestment in science and wondered how that
could happen in difficult times. My reply was
that it was all a matter of priorities where governments put their money, but at the same time
I quietly wondered about how to mitigate expectations. What should we expect as we move forward in time and how should we prepare for it?
In 2009, I was visiting with the minister of
science and technology on the day after the first
federal budget was announced, following the
economic crisis of 2008. The government pro-
vided the Knowledge Infrastructure Program
for universities but very little new money for
research. On the front page of the Globe and Mail
that day was a picture of a researcher who was
expressing anger about the budget. The reaction
of the minister while I was in his office was that
if this was how professors responded to an
investment in universities, maybe the govern-
ment should invest elsewhere.
This has been running through my mind as
we feel the good fortune of both investments in
research and in infrastructure at our universities.
It has also reminded me that it is not usually
considered the best practice to bite the hand that
feeds you. It is time to congratulate our government on the vote of confidence they have shown
us and to do it over and over. If things go askew
in the future, it is still time to congratulate whatever investments do occur while continuing to
make the case for science and by delivering our
ultimate message by how we vote.
Last month, I was invited to speak at a jointly
sponsored meeting in Brazil by Universities
Canada and FAUBAI, the Brazilian Association
for International Education. It was a meeting to
discuss lessons learned from Brazil’s Science
without Borders program. Hailed as dramatic
and visionary at its inception in 2011, the pro-
gram is now winding down. Its goal was to
strengthen and expand that country’s initiatives
in science, technology, innovation and competi-
tiveness by funding the international mobility
of 101,000 students and researchers in the
STEM disciplines over a five-year period. Brazil,
with its thriving economy, was making a decided
move onto the world’s science stage.
Canada, like many other countries, became
very engaged in this program. Our Governor
General led a delegation of some 40 university
presidents to Brazil in the spring of 2012. Our
campuses began organizing Brazilian Portuguese courses so Canadian students could reciprocate and go to Brazil.
Did Science without Borders work perfectly?
No, but a great deal was learned in the course of
this bold venture. Brazilians are now recognizing
the need for better language training in their
educational system. Canadians discovered only
relatively few students had the temerity to go to
Brazil and the original goal of scientific advancement remained relatively untapped since the
majority of students were undergraduates who
spent a lot of their time in language courses.
More strikingly, the Brazilian economy today
is not what it was in 2011. The funding for Science
without Borders has dried up and the present
government is in profound disarray. I felt a sense
of nostalgia at the meetings I attended. What had
once seemed like such a great initiative and held
such hope for international scientific advances
was ending. For sure, the Science without Borders program will leave its traces; some may be
recognizable for years. But times have changed
and expectations had been curtailed. They will
change yet again and now is the time to begin
to craft new plans for that future.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie
University. Her column
appears in every second issue
of University Affairs.
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