Science, Politics and Science Policy in Canada: Steps towards a Renewed Critical Inquiry

Article excerpt


In this essay, the author undertakes a critical review of Canadian science policy. This provides a framework in which to assess the current state of affairs of "science and politics in Canada." It is shown in what way notions of state-administered science policy, as well as market-driven exchange, are problematic. Special attention is given to the emergence of the concept of innovation, first appearing in the Science Council of Canada's 1968 Report #4, but now appearing uncritically throughout government documents on science and public policy. The core thesis of the essay, arising out of an analysis of the "essential tension" between the autonomy of science and the authority of politics, is that both the meaning of scientific practice and its relevance for public policy must be shaped by an ongoing critical discussion within civil society a discussion that must not be dominated by either the state or markets.

Dans cet article, l'auteur entreprend un examen critique de la politique des sciences au Canada. Ceci fournit un cadre pour evaluer la situation actuelle " de la science et des politiques au Canada ". On demontre de quelle facon les notions de politique des sciences administree par l'Etat ainsi que d'echange axe sur le marche sont problematiques. On s'arrete specialement a l'emergence du concept d'innovation qui est apparu pour la premiere fois dans le rapport no 4 du Conseil des sciences du Canada en 1968 mais apparait maintenant sans etre conteste un peu partout dans les documents gouvernementaux sur la science et la politique publique. La these qui sous-tend cet article provient d'une analyse de la " tension essentielle " entre l'autonomie de la science et l'autorite des politiques et avance que la definition de la pratique scientifique et sa pertinence en matiere de politique publique doivent etre modelees a l'aide d'une discussion critique continue au sein d'une societe civile - une discussion qui ne doit pas etre dominee par l'Etat ou les marches.

It is often said that we live in an age of science, or that ours is a scientific culture. It is rarely clear just what this means. On the one hand, it implies that our culture is a descendent of the enlightenment - that we value reason highly, perhaps above all else; on the other hand, it implies that our culture is rooted in technology and a version of pragmatic rationality which puts utility above all else. As is often the case when views are separated so sharply, neither holds up to scrutiny. This polarization between the idealized view of scientific culture as one with a profound respect for reason and the pragmatic view of scientific culture as one with a vulgar respect for utility is by no means trivial. Nor is it merely an exercise in philosophical abstraction to identify the rift. For it is a rift that informs many of our day-to-day discourses about science, and, more importantly, one which shapes affairs at the level of policy. In this essay I shall be concerned mostly with the latter.

What I would like to do here is motivate a theoretical discussion about science and politics in Canada by locating some of the relevant issues within the philosophical polarity I have just identified. The approach is generally historical insofar as I begin by sketching the development of science funding institutions in Canada; however, the themes are critical and philosophical. I hope to identify and clarify central ideas that have informed discussions in Canada about science and its place within the public policy process and within government and industrial decision-making institutions. The three themes which I highlight are (1) the concept of science policy, (2) our understanding of the relationship of science to public policy, and (3) the emerging notion of innovation as a rhetorical centrepiece of current public debates about science. Although the essays being published in this special issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies were not officially selected for nor organized around these themes, I believe that the historico-philosophical framework I sketch here provides some insight into the context in which the essays were conceived and written by their authors. …