Bioethics Forum Essay

The Hazards of Fast Science

A recent editorial in Nature lauds the U.S. government for its efforts to promote open communication between government scientists and journalists, but it condemns the Canadian government for its opposing efforts to limit what federal scientists can freely communicate to journalists. TheNaturecriticisms of the Harper government are well-founded. But the problem for science in Canada extends far beyond the “tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers.” More worrisome is the now dominant philosophy of trickle-down economics for science which drives science funding in this country.

In Canada, increasingly, the federal government’s funding strategy for science is one that narrowly celebrates “P3science” – science funded through public-private partnerships. The guiding philosophy for this strategy is a sort of trickle-down economics for science, which presumes that commercialized science benefits society by improving the economy.

With this strategy, research is not about knowledge production, but about the “knowledge economy” and the “delivery of tangible and measurable results” to create a “prosperous and resilient” economy. Our scientists are not so much engaged in developing a research agenda, as in contributing to the “research enterprise.”  In this context it is easy to denigrate basic science, sometimes described as “blue sky” science, because it does not aim to create new products, new services, and new jobs. Officially, P3science aims to secure “economic and social benefits for Canadians,” but the social benefits are never more than the hoped-for trickle-down benefits to the economy from the development and commercialization of new technologies.

The shift in funding strategy from science founded on the principles of knowledge and benefit-sharing, to science founded on the principles of economics and velocity, has been slow and until recently almost imperceptible. In many ways, the transition has been analogous to the slow boil method for putting lobsters to sleep so they don’t twitch their tails when they are dropped into boiling water.

I worry that science funding in Canada might be on the slow boil to kill science as an independent exercise in knowledge production. I offer for consideration recent facts about the science funding landscape in Canada and invite others to reflect on what is (or might be) happening in their own country.

Partnerships with industry are now the mainstay of the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence program. This program was established in 1989 to promote collaborative multidisciplinary research.  In 2007, not satisfied with the commercial and business outputs, the federal government created two new NCE programs to “accelerate the commercialization of technologies, products and services.” These are the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research and the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence. Meanwhile, since 2009 no new money has flowed to the original NCE program.

In the drive to promote commercial success, the federal government now plans to transform the National Research Council.  It will have a commercialization mandate and offer a concierge service to entrepreneurs.  The NRC will help businesses and business-minded scientists translate their science into products and technologies to help grow the economy.

Other examples of science funding streamlined to serve the interests of industry abound, and include Genome Canada and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. Commercialization is also heavily influencing health research, as can be seen with the partnership between Canada’s Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (the Canadian equivalent of the NIH).

Increasingly, and as a direct result of the federal government’s funding philosophy of trickle-down economics for science, science that doesn’t support the “knowledge economy” is science that won’t get funded. The same is true for peripherally related research in the humanities and social sciences. As concerns research in bioethics, for example, there will be funding to answer the “how to” questions:  “How can we do X ethically?” There will be no funding for the logically prior question: “Is it ethical to do X?” The underlying assumption is that if the research will contribute to the economy by creating new products, new services, and new jobs, then the research should be pursued – the faster, the better.

In opposition to “fast science,” there is the European slow science movement. The opening salvo of the slow science manifesto is: “We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.”

To be clear, the slow science movement is not antiscience: “Don’t get us wrong – we do sayyesto the accelerated science of the early 21stcentury. We sayyesto the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we sayyesto science blogs and media & PR necessities; we sayyesto increasing specialization and diversification in all disciplines. We also sayyesto research feeding back into health care and future prosperity. All of us are in this game, too.”

Beyond this, however, the proponents of slow science explicitly recognize that “Science needs time to think” alongside time to read, time to dialogue with the humanities and social sciences, time to digest, and time to fail. “Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward,” the manifesto continues, “at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.”

Scientists and others need to resist the crushing imperative for science to sell itself in the familiar terms of immediate return on investment. In this task, they could be ably assisted by persons in bioethics who could help to elucidate the benefits of science in open and honest dialogue with the humanities and social scientists.

Françoise Baylis, PhD, is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 03/20/2012 11:21:36 AM |

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Hastings Bioethics Forum essays are the opinions of the authors, not of The Hastings Center.