Agendas, Interests and Authority: Science and Politics in Canada

By Bocking, Stephen | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Agendas, Interests and Authority: Science and Politics in Canada


Bocking, Stephen, Journal of Canadian Studies


In the spring of 1953, two young scientists announced they had discovered the secret of life. By describing the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson helped explain the nature of heredity. It was not quite the "secret" of life, but it was certainly an enormous contribution to our knowledge of biology.

Fifty years later, the consequences continue to unfold. On the one hand, Trent University, the home of the Journal of Canadian Studies, has just announced plans to become a centre for DNA research, to pursue innovations in health and forensic science and to seek out opportunities for local economic development. On the other hand, just last month Trent students opened an "organic" cafe, serving food that, they promise, will be free of genetically modified ingredients. The capacity provided by science to understand and to reshape nature has created both new possibilities and new anxieties, in Canada and elsewhere.

Scientific knowledge and its political, economic and social implications have not received extensive attention in the Journal of Canadian Studies. As this issue of the journal demonstrates, however, this area of study is entirely consistent with the spirit of Canadian Studies, demanding interdisciplinarity, a balanced understanding of both universal themes and concrete details, and, often, a view of scholarly study as an activist enterprise. Examining science in society requires many disciplines, from philosophy to history, from sociology to political science. This diversity of perspectives is well represented in this issue, in articles that range from the politics of scientific institutions, to the quantitative study of scientific productivity, to the sociology of recent controversies involving science. Science itself, of course, is often viewed in universal terms, as a community of scholars transcending national borders and pursuing knowledge valid in every context. As comparative studies of science have demonstrated, however, borders do matter: different national contexts generate distinctive approaches to understanding nature. Certainly, the "classic" problems of science in society - such as adjudicating the competing research agendas of scientists, politicians, industrialists and the public, or negotiating the tension between democratic imperatives and technocratic perspectives that privilege expertise, are not specific to Canada. None the less, the dis-tinctive history of Canadian science is informed by institutions such as the Geological Survey of Canada, the National Research Council and the federal research granting agencies; the evolving relationship between Canadian scientists and a natural environment of unusual biological and geographical diversity; and recent shifts in science policy, from the building of an autonomous scientific community to the formation of a "national system of innovation" focussed on science as an economic instrument. The history has generated a continuing dialectic between universal challenges and the concrete experience of science in Canada. Finally, several articles in this issue exhibit a commitment to an activist agenda, exploring concerns regarding the environmental impacts of resource extraction, the implications of new technologies such as genetically modified food, or the consequences of restrictions on alternative health care. Such preoccupations are informed by an awareness of the ties between science and political and economic authority, and the implications of these ties for democracy, equity, environmentalism and other values important to many Canadians.

Defining the Terrain

This issue begins with several essays that define the terrain of Canadian science, examining where research is done - in laboratories and field stations, in universities, hospitals, governments and industry - as well as the ideas and interests that shape scientific activity in these diverse locations. David Holdsworth provides historical and philosophical context, locating contemporary debates within the longstanding dichotomy between an autonomous scientific community pursuing knowledge for its own sake and a scientific practice guided by a concern for pragmatic utility in the service of society. …

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