Trudeau in China: Take note of Asian models that leverage, value scientific research

In both Japan and China, strong links exist between national academies and government, and research is well funded. Canada should take note. 

By: /
September 2, 2016
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

Some questions worth thinking about for the Canadian government, considering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s current trip to Asia: Would it like some of the best experts in the world to design a sensible industrial strategy for Canada that would guarantee long-term wealth, employment and economic security for generations to come? Would it like to harness the brain power of our best thinkers to determine how Canada could secure a nutritious food supply system in the face of climate change and international trade agreements? Would it be surprised to learn that this could all be done at little cost and with no payment to the experts?

In fact, Canada’s best intellectuals, many of whom are fellows of our various National Academies embracing the social, natural and health sciences, as well as engineering, are here to serve the country and its government. The only requirement is for Canada to ask them to tackle a problem of national concern and to cover basic expenses involving support staff and travel, with no additional salaries going to the experts.

Canada’s top academics and researchers, let me call them our “national treasures,” are highly productive in completing leading-edge research that is published in top international journals. The country’s most creative academics and professionals are duly recognized by their peers through stiff competitions in which they are elected as Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada (the Academy of the Arts and Humanities, Academy of Social Sciences, and Academy of Science all fall within the RSC founded by a Royal Charter in 1883), Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE) or the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS).

However, these fountains of knowledge are not being effectively utilized to benefit Canadians economically, socially and culturally because of two main reasons: the lack of strong links between our National Academies and government, and the dearth of funding to support expert panels to address problems of national concern. And, despite a change of government, this continues to be a challenge in Canada.

To explain how to take advantage of the intellectual wealth of a nation for the benefit of all consider the cases of Japan and China. Fittingly, Trudeau is in China and may have a first-hand look at the relationship between scientists and government there himself. But first, the Japanese model.

The Japan Academy has 150 Members with 70 in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Section I) and 80 in the Pure Sciences and their Applications (Section II). Being elected Member of The Japan Academy is the highest recognition that a Japanese researcher can receive. Its Canadian counterpart is becoming Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC).

The Emperor and Empress of Japan personally induct each new Member and are cognizant of how these valuable national treasures enrich their nation. The Science Council of Japan (SJC) receives generous funding from the Japanese government to tackle problems of national importance such as the reconstruction of the areas affected by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the deposition of radioactive materials from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. The SJC has 210 council members who are appointed by the Prime Minister of Japan and 2000 members who are elected as representatives from Japan’s 840,000 scientists. The SJC President reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, China’s two great academies in science and engineering are institutions within the State Council of China. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is one of the most influential and prestigious organizations in China. The status of the CAS President is at the level of a senior Cabinet minister in the Canadian Government. Being elected Academician or Fellow of CAS is similar in prestige to being an RSC Fellow in Canada. CAS has under its control 124 research institutes spread across the country, employs about 50,000 scientists and receives billions of dollars in support, while the National Research Council of Canada is severely underfunded.

Lenovo, a large computer company, is a spinoff of CAS in China. Among its many massive projects, CAS was involved in the installation of the world’s longest quantum communication network linking Beijing and Shanghai, and, on Aug. 16, 2016, the successful launch of a satellite having quantum communication capability.

As in Canada, the Chinese Academy of Engineering duly recognizes China’s very best engineers. Unlike in Canada, it receives sizeable grants to complete important projects that benefit Chinese citizens, such as how to handle the migration of about 15 million people per year from the countryside to cities, and developing energy technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as the design and building of 30 third generation nuclear reactors. China is already the world’s leading manufacturing nation and is on course to surpass Canada in creativity and innovation in science and engineering.

The National Academies in Japan and China are vastly better funded than those in Canada. They are requested to solve problems of national interest on a regular basis, strongly connected to the centres of political power who appreciate them, and greatly respected by all segments of society.

More funding at the moment in Canada could go to issues of pressing concern, with natural Canadian expertise, such as designing fair trade agreements that benefit Canadians and harmonized economy-wide climate change policies that bring about massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the Council of Canadian Academies receives some funding to carry out expert panel projects, the RSC, CAE and CAHS constitute non-profit organizations, which are self-supporting largely through membership fees.

Our fellow citizens in Canada’s National Academies and other academics are ready to devote freely of their time to benefit all Canadians. All that is required is the political will to request their help and provide modest funding. What a fantastic deal for our nation.