AAAS 2014: Where was Canada?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Jean-Marc Mangin, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

This last weekend, Chicago hosted this premier inter-disciplinary academic conference by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which focussed a great deal on innovation and climate change.

However,  our Government  was missing. No booth; no reception; no breakfast; no sponsored programming.  I understand that dollars are scarce and choices have to be made. However Ottawa is less than a two hour flight from Chicago where Canada has a large consulate. Yet we could not muster any official Canadian presence.  In comparison, Japanese, Korean and European agencies were highly visible and there was some even science Ministers from developing countries. 

The lack of a Canadian presence at AAAS was puzzling. Science diplomacy is a theme that our Governor General has stressed during his mandate. The Government has made several significant investments in research, notably in last week's budget, that deserve international attention.  The Canadian Research Chairs model is admired. MITACS program are perceived as highly innovative — and both deserve to be better known.

If an official presence was lacking, several Canadians were in attendance, including staff from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), Grand Challenges Canada, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities (U15), and a President from a leading Canadian University. Many other Canadian researchers from across the country delivered their findings but were lost among the sea of presentations.

The only all-Canadian panel that I could find was one on Canada's oil sands organized by Amir Mokhtari Fard of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary.  The panel included Clare Demerse from the Pembina Institute, the respected environmental think tank, and Dave Collyer, the President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.  No recent peer reviewed research was presented. While Ms. Demerse offered a factual summary of the environmental and policy issues at stake, Mr. Collyer’s presentation was a series of talking points from the industry that we can regularly read in our national newspapers. His message was a rather crude advertisement for a US audience that boiled down to "get your oil from us — we are cheaper and nicer (for the environment than our competitors)".   Challenged that Canada will miss its own 2020 greenhouse targets, Mr. Collyer dismissed any target as divisive and somehow counter-productive to improving Canada environmental performance. The moderator made a statement about the emotional nature of the debate and the need to elaborate science-based solutions. To make the point that solutions will emerge from the competition of ideas, he showed a video clip with small robots fighting each other.  Overall, the panel went over rather poorly with many in the audience and in the twitter universe. Several delegates asked afterwards how the panel made it to the official program. A bizarre and embarrassing display. Not the kind of negative publicity that an advanced knowledge society wants or needs with leading scientists from all over the world. 

Meanwhile genuine scientific findings were presented and discussed at AAAS. Sessions on climate science were particularly well attended, including one that jetstreams may be changing — making extreme weather events and long hot and cold spells more likely in our rapidly changing climate.

For better and for worse, AAAS remains one of the world’s leading academic conferences which attracts significant media coverage. Even with limited resources, Canada can and must do better to project the quality of research and the calibre of scholars working in our institutions. We have good stories to tell and world class research to highlight.


Be sure to also read a guest post by Helen Murphy, Assistant Director, Communications, for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Canada’s missed opportunity at AAAS” in University Affairs.


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