Creating a ‘New Normal’ for Science: Should We Really Leave That ‘Mission’ to the Feds?

Canadian science deserves much better.
Published on May 27, 2023

Pedestrians cross Elgin Street in view of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)


Ronald Reagan once quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” He might have spared some thought on the terrors inflicted by those who presume to advise government. We rightly blame elected officials for poor judgment. We should also blame the think-tanks that specialize in making bad ideas sound smart.

This blunt caution is occasioned by the recent release of Government Science and Innovation in the New Normal (GSINN) by the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance, a report that argues that the relationship between science and society is due for an overhaul.

In the wake of World War II, science enjoyed something of a compact with society, one in which government accorded “the scientific community a great deal of autonomy in exchange for the considerable but unpredictable benefits” that stemmed from science research, the report says. Scientists, in short, were left to pursue their individual interests.

The emergence of COVID-19, however, has revealed a new normal, one in which the “social, economic and political assumptions in the postwar compact” are now seen as outdated.  The report’s authors press for nine reforms to govern the future operation of science both within the federal government and without, including policies to encourage Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; Interdisciplinary Collaboration; Embrace of Indigenous Ways of Knowing; and Mission-Driven Research.

On the one hand, the report’s authors are quite right to question the science-society status quo. Too much autonomy, particularly if it leads to researcher isolation from society, can lead to siloed institutions, hyper-specialization, declining rates of innovation, and research agendas out of sync with public values and priorities. In Canada’s university sector especially, there is a deep need to re-integrate town and gown. Unfortunately, GSINN proposes a set of reforms that is more likely to hinder rather than help that enterprise.

Consider the report’s call to implement mission-driven research. That approach, the report rightly notes, has “come into vogue in recent years,” and “advocates for strategic priorities in specific areas of public purpose, guided by … regulations that provide clarity for proponents.”

Drawing on the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato, GSINN argues that the approach can be leveraged to pursue grand challenges such as forestalling climate change, improving global health, and addressing economic inequality.

It’s an inspiring call to action, but it also presents a key problem: the report, which clearly sees the federal government as the mission definer and driver of future Canadian science, traffics on an approach to mission-oriented research and operation that runs counter to the spirit of the mission-command approach in vogue with businesses and even some universities.

That approach is characterized by vertical rather than hierarchical organization, “teams of teams” of collaborating organizations or divisions within organizations, transparent information exchange, trust-building between members within and across teams, and bottom-up rather than top-down initiatives. It is an approach that aligns well with a philosophy of governance in which strategic direction is left to local political actors, since, as Stanley McChrystal writes in “Team of Teams,” the mission-command approach assumes that individuals on the ground best understand the opportunities and problems they face when adapting to rapid, often chaotic change.

Universities worldwide, via the Responsive University movement, seem to recognize this. Many are forging connections with local stakeholders, Ira Harkavy and colleagues write, to solve “locally manifested universal problems.” To adapt to rapid economic, environmental, and social change, the best thing the federal government can do is support regional and local initiatives, not set Canada’s research priorities.

A second problem with GSINN is its desire to incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion principles into Canadian science. The report argues that “Canadians deserve a scientific enterprise populated by people who look like them, who are challenged by their challenges.”

To attain diversity, it is imperative that the government dismantle the systems of power and thought that have hindered the creation of socially just work environments.  Such dismantling, GSINN argues, can be achieved by holding “ongoing, mandatory training on unconscious bias.”

It is unfortunate that in making this recommendation, GSINN fails to consult the latest findings of the science it is purporting to support and defend. Psychologist Ulrich Schimmack notes that the science on implicit racism is not settled. The two tests designed to detect its existence in a given subject generally disagree more than agree.  In an important recent study, Mitchell Campbell and Markus Brauer argue that racism is better seen as a conscious mindset held by some people rather than an unconscious drive propagated by all people.

If these three scientists are correct, GSINN is promoting an anti-racism measure as credible as an auditing session in a Scientology seminar. Canadian science deserves much better.

John Bonnett is an associate professor in history at Brock University. He is a former Tier II Canada Research Chair. This commentary was originally published here.

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