Yves Gingras

Guest Contributor
March 26, 2007

Who can speak for Canadian science?

By Dr Yves Gingras

In May, the Association francophone pour le savoir — formerly the French-Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACFAS) — will hold its 75th annual congress at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR). From a Canadian perspective, this event should raise an intriguing question: Why did Canadian scientists never manage to create a viable national ‘Association for the Advancement of Science' (AAS) as most other countries did in the 19th and 20th centuries?

The British provided the model for the many Associations for the Advancement of Science (AAS) by creating the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1831. The model was rapidly imitated and, among many others, the Americans created the AAAS in 1848. In the British Commonwealth alone, there were six such associations by 1950, but none representing Canada.

Interestingly, French-Canadian scientists in the Province of Quebec created the Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des sciences (ACFAS) in 1923, becoming the eighth such association then existing in the world. After having organized popular lectures in colleges and universities to stimulate scientific careers for 10 years, ACFAS launched its first annual scientific meeting in 1933. Since that time, the congress has been held every year without interruption. After a period of exponential growth from the mid 1950s to the mid 1980s, each annual gathering now attracts more than 4,000 participants from all disciplines. In addition to the annual meeting, ACFAS started publishing a liaison Bulletin in 1959, which became a full-fledged magazine in 1984 (Interface), now published under the title Découvrir. It provides an outlet in which scientists can learn about activities in Quebec. The magazine also voices their concerns in an op-ed page, "Paroles de scientifiques".

By contrast, having no comparable national scientific magazine in which to voice their concerns on matters of national science policy, Canadian scientists are left with publishing their complaints in Science the magazine of the AAAS ( "Problems with Co-Funding in Canada", Vol 308) (December 9/05). And the national science advisor to the prime minister of Canada had to respond in the same journal to defend government policies (Vol 309). In other words, lacking proper tools to communicate within Canada, they had to "wash their dirty linen" in a foreign journal. But in the very same month, the national science advisor could use Découvrir, the magazine of ACFAS, to present his views on the role of Canadian R&D in the world context (July-August 2005).

Arguably more sensitive than natural scientists to questions of national identity, social scientists created the Canadian Social Science Research Council in 1940, on the model of its American counterpart. In 1943, the humanities created a similar organization (the Humanities Research Council). In 1998, they merged under the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences. These disciplines have their annual peripatetic meeting like ACFAS but no links with natural scientists.

No national collective voice for science

A perverse effect of this absence of a truly national organization (beyond and above disciplinary associations) is that there is no recognized national spokesperson or collective voice to speak on behalf of scientific research. In our representative democracies, governments want to engage with official representatives of every interest group, and science is no exception. In countries where general associations like AAS exist, scientists are in a good position to discuss with governments and submit their views about the role of science in society.

During the first 'fever' of science policy at the end of the 1960s, the Association of the Scientific, Technological and Engineering Community of Canada (SCITEC) published the journal Science Forum, debating science policy in Canada, but it soon vanished from the scene after the Lamontagne report was tabled. While SCITEC lay dormant, the Canadian Consortium for Research was established in 1976 and now represents 22 organizations covering the sciences as well as the humanities and the social sciences. In 1995, the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) appeared to "represent the Canadian science and engineering community to the Government of Canada". Both have been lobbying the government on behalf of Canadian science over the last decade. But they are essentially unknown to the average scientist and seem to exist only in the ‘corridors of power' in Ottawa.

When we compare the history of ACFAS and its activities with that of English-Canadian associations, we cannot escape the feeling that the basic characteristic explaining the very existence of ACFAS is a strong identification with a French-Canadian nation with its own language (French) and its specific institutions. The creation of ACFAS in 1923 was an integral part of the struggle for national existence and economic development of a French-Canadian culture in an ocean of Anglo-American culture. Speaking English, the rest of Canada has a hard time distinguishing itself from the US despite the existence of political borders. For scientists, the attraction of the US is strong and difficult to resist. One could point to a large number of Canadian scientists who made their entire careers in the US, some even obtaining Nobel prizes or becoming assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

Whatever the reasons behind the lack of a strong Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science (CAAS) or its equivalent, there is a price to pay for not having a credible national organization uniting all scientists. Though elite organizations like the US National Academies of Science or the Royal Society of Canada and its Academies can be consulted by governments, they cannot replace the democratic and popular AAS. If science and technology are to stay visible on the political scene, scientists will have to find a way to make visible the fact that they care about their country by being more active in the public space. And only with functional equivalents to ACFAS and Découvrir will Canadian scientists really be able to make their voice heard without having to use foreign channels to debate their problems.

Yves Gingras is Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal and scientific director of the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies (OST). A longer version of this article was published in Physics in Canada, Nov-Dec. 2006.

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