Monday, December 17, 2007

The Ministry of Knowledge

In today's Globe & Mail, Preston Manning asks "Just how did we let this happen?". It's behind the Globe's subscription site.

In the article, Mr. Manning talks about the federal government's inability to react to "scientific" crises due to a lack of scientific knowledge available to the politicians. Mr. Manning talks about the lack of medical isotopes resulting from the shutdown of an aging nuclear reactor at Chalk River as an impetus to create new scientific projects funded by the government.

While I think Mr. Manning's cause is a noble one, I can't help but smell something funny.

This paragraph, for example.
[T]his country has yet to figure out a funding formula for publicly funded science projects that insures long-term viability. Capital funds, personnel funds, operating funds and infrastructure funds are all required to energize a big science project such as the development of a next-generation unclear research reactor.

Wait, what? Funding formula for publicly funded science projects? Capital funds, personnel funds, operating funds, and infrastructure funds? Insuring long-term viability?

Now, I'll leave that for the moment because I have something else I want to get to, but do you see how you could substitute "science projects" with "health care" or "education" or, you get the idea. Indeed, sound public investment can be conservative talking points. Imagine injecting capital funds, personnel funds, operating funds and infrastructure funds into energizing a big health care project? And, he's a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute.

But, that's for a different story.

Further down the piece, Mr. Manning suggests a remedy for this lack of scientific knowledge in the public sphere:

Create a separate federal ministry and department of science and technology.

Until recently, we had a couple of ministries promoting scientific research and technological innovation - Environment, Natural Resources, and Industry Canada - until the government felt they were not cooperating with the message of Canada's New Government.

In addition, it seems to me that scientific establishments abound in this country - universities could use injections of such funding.

And, that's why this whole piece smells funny. The entire infrastructure is there - both scientific and political.

The problem, especially for this Conservative government, is that it would be unable to control the message. You can control the message if you create a ministry within the government (or, shut down the message of an existing ministry). You can control the message if you "recruit members of the science community to run for office", and ultimately run for your party. You can say that leaders appointed to work in Crown corporations should be appointed based upon merit but you can appoint those with political ties too as Mr. Manning warns ...

[A]ppointments to the boards of Crown corporations ... have been based as much on political patronage considerations as on scientific or business competency.

... and even when they are appointed based on merit, they are still targeted for partisan attack.

However, I'm drawn to this paragraph in the middle of Mr. Manning's piece:

[M]any Canadian scientific establishments [have] never really learned to put its key messages in the form and language necessary to communicate effectively with taxpayers, politicians, or the media.

Why is it necessary for scientific establishments to communicate effectively with taxpayers - why must a scientific message be entirely catered to the taxpaying audience? Why must science be tailored to a cost benefit analysis of this nature? I'm presuming we're not talking about research into a new formula for streak-free Windex here, but real scientific research.

It would be very easy to snuff out an individual research project if it did not hold up to this type of financial scrutiny, never mind the fact that that individual project could have profound implications down the road.

And, so it's easy then to see how the scientific message can be ultimately controlled. You can control the message by turning off the project funding if it doesn't satisfy the taxpayer.

I would like to believe Mr. Manning. I just can't, however. I would like to see sound public investment as much as the next person, and I'm glad that Mr. Manning has taken the leap that one can be conservative and call for more publicly funded institutions, but I can't help but question the ultimate motives.


berlynn said...

It would be good to see money for research into options for providing alternatives to radionucleic isotopes, which AECL effectively ended.

Jim said...

Absolutely. I'm just not sure it's necessary to politicize science and research, by creating a "Ministry of Science" and then channel research funding through it.

Funding for that research could be channelled through Health Canada and out to, say, McMaster University's Department of Nuclear Medicine (for example - I'm not sure it would be the best choice, but it's the first thing that came to my head). They would conduct the research independently and report back to the government.

JimBobby said...

Whooee! So, Manning thinks we need a brand new bureaucracy to develop new research reactors? We're already building the Maple 1 and Maple 2. Those new research reactors were scheduled to replace the aging Chalk River plant in 2000. They are 8 years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. More bureaucracy will fix that? I ain't bettin' on it.

The latest chapter to the AECL saga is that Mr. Burns was selected on purely partisan grounds after two headhunting studies recommended a qualified, experienced individual for the job. Just like Harper said, the problem is with political hacks being appointed to jobs for which they are unqualified.

Tony Clement is now saying there are management problems at AECL. He's making it sound like Burns had to go. Two days ago, the spin was that Burns' hasty departure had nothing to do with the manufactured isotope shortage. Yesterday, a different story. Tomorrow? Wait for the next spin cycle.

“I think it's fair to say it confirmed our impression that there has to be new management, there has to be better management, at AECL,” Mr. Clement said.

Was that the same impression they had in 2005 when they paid for a headhunter and then chose a party hack instead of the recommended hire?

The biggest part of this whole scandal is the fact that the shortage and ensuing crisis were avoidable, even at almost the last minute.

MDS is the profitable private company that distributes AECL's isotopes. On Nov 30, MDS issued a press release advising investors that the company was facing a supply problem and shortages may develop. Such reporting is required for publicly traded companies when a known issue may affect stock price.

Alternate suppliers, particularly a Holland-based reactor, were already gearing up their production schedules to meet the demand when NRU could not. A similar outsourcing program was used in 1998 when a labour dispute shut down Chalk River.

Procedures for dealing with future shortages were implemented after th e1998 strike. Even during that strike, though, they managed to keep isotopes available.

This time, they let the crisis develop. Lives were put at risk. A full-blown crisis was manufactured and Harper, et al, saw no other option than to overrule CNSC and restart NRU. There were other options but they were apparently unknown to parliament.

If MDS had outsourced, no crisis would have developed. If MDS had outsourced, MDS's stock price would be negatively affected. Outsourcing from suppliers who are working overtime to meet demanmd is expensive. MDS's customers are mainly in North America. Flying isotopes from Holland or South Africa is expensive. Transportation costs would have would cut further into MDS's profits.

MDS played its cards skillfully. They created a shortage. They failed to notify all the affected parties. They failed to procure available alternative isotopes. They put thousands of lives at risk. They got Parliament to restore their source of profitable isotopes.

Harper's disdain for crown corporations is well known and his years at NCC document his anti-crowncorp ideology. Placing an unqualified party fundraiser in charge of a multi-billion dollar nuclear industry giant was tantamount to sabotage. Now, CPoC strategists like Norquay are popping up and saying we need to rid ourselves of this troublesome AECL.

Who benefits from a discredited safety board and a devalued AECL? G.E. for one. They are front runners in the bid to purchase AECL from the taxpayers of Canada.

20 years from now, will we be seeing some HoC ethics committee grilling Harper about his connection to an avoidable isotope shortage that threatened thousands of lives?