President Barack Obama is generating an excitement around science that Canada has to be prepared to match. If it does not, it will lose scientific and technological talent, and the economic opportunities it generates.

 

Mr. Obama is creating a sea change on science. This week he lifted the Bush administration's restrictions on funding research using embryonic stem cells, the starting material for all organs and tissue. More than that, he said what many U.S. scientists had been longing to hear for the past eight years: “Promoting science isn't just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry…. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” And in his stimulus budget last month, he gave $10-billion for research and infrastructure to the National Institutes of Health, the country's main funding agency for medical research. Science south of the border is not only well resourced, it is suddenly cool, sexy.

 

It has been that way in Canada, to a good extent, in the past decade. University research funding grew by leaps and bounds; the budget for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research tripled, and that of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council doubled, between 2000 and 2005. Not coincidentally, there was a 27-per-cent jump in the number of university professors and assistants from the United States who received work permits here between 2002 and 2007.

 

With a brain gain came a knowledge gain. Our stem-cell researchers are world leaders. Heck, they discovered stem cells; and they announced last week that they had discovered a new way to turn skin cells into stem cells, which could help treat diseases currently considered incurable, such as Parkinson's.

 

Alas, that was yesterday. In the recent federal budget, the Conservative government gave a big boost to physical infrastructure, and to graduate students, both good things; but it cut funds to some granting councils, and held the line on others. Genome Canada, a non-profit group that funds scientific research, was ignored in the budget. A network of Canadian stem-cell researchers was slated to lead a 12-country effort to map the genetic circuitry of the stem cell, but its participation is in doubt because it may not be able to make the necessary financial commitment. Separately, a team of 30 neuroscientists at three Ontario universities is scrabbling for money, and warning that scientists will take their talents elsewhere. “We are going head first into a cement wall,” says Doug Crawford, a neuroscientist at Toronto's York University. “The very best scientists will leave.” Scientists are greedy to use their talents fully, as Heather Munroe-Blum, McGill University's principal and vice-chancellor, puts it. Talent is mobile Canadian freestyle skier Jennifer Heil recently said she senses “an attitude change toward excellence in our country.” But excellence in any sphere requires investment. As in the Olympics, so, too, in science: To stand still is to fall behind.

 

Ottawa sees the infrastructure spending as providing temporary stimulus to the economy, while hikes in operating funds might be hard to make temporary. But there is a buzz around science in the U.S., and any complacency here will put Canada's gains in scientific talent and energy at risk.