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A word from the President - August 2018

Time to get RSC funding from the government

In its February budget, the Federal government boldly decided to invest in Canadian scientists and researchers by, among other things, increasing the funding for fundamental research through the three Canadian granting councils (NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC) by 25% over the next three years. Regardless of one’s politics, this is undoubtedly great news for science and research. One could even whisper (please, not too loudly) that the good news are so refreshing that they almost exceed expectations. Gourmand, like we say in French, I wondered whether the Royal Society of Canada, whose basic aim is the promotion of excellence in research, benefited from the generosity and courage of this new investment in science. Sadly, this was not the case.

I believe this is an anomaly and that if this is to change, now is the best time to do something about it. Here are some arguments and I stress that they are only mine, not necessarily those of the RSC. It is my conviction that the RSC, which, lest we forget, was established under an Act of Paliament in 1883 as Canada’s National Academy, accomplishes a very public service through its promotion of excellence in scholarship and research. To pursue this objective, it has the expertise and experience that the government and the main granting councils do not have to the same degree. In 2018, of all years, this expertise was on full display when the RSC, under the inspiring leadership of our president Chad Gaffield, spearheaded and coordinated summits of the G7 Science Academies that led to the formulation of specific statements and specific recommendations on the Global Arctic and Our Digital Future. The summit on our Digital Future took place in Ottawa on April 26th and was opened by the Minister of Science, Ms. Kirsty Duncan, who gratefully acknowledged on this occasion the help and guidance provided by the RSC. The G7 summit on the Arctic was held in Montréal on May 23-24 and was bookended by an introductory video by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (a total surprise since it was unannounced) and a closing lecture by Governer General Julie Payette, who made a point of attending the entire afternoon session, much to the delight of the presenters and those in attendance. Julie Payette delivered on that occasion an uplifting lecture on the beauty of the Arctic which she had the privilege to contemplate from the point of view of an astronaut. It was a proud moment to be a member of the RSC. Both the Prime Minister and the Governer General seemed most appreciative of the work accomplished by the RSC. The least one can say is that the goverment at its highest echelons is aware of our work and seems to be thankful for it.

So, why doesn’t the RSC receive any funding for the public service it provides all Canadians? As hard as it is to believe, our RSC is the only national Academy of the G7 that doesn’t receive any funding from its government. This is also an anomaly that screams to be corrected if indeed our RSC is to persevere and prosper as a national treasure and institution. The need for funding is also glaring. Our dedicated staff is currently stretched to its limits. We have given ourselves an ambitious Strategic Plan for 2018-2022, Mobilize, Catalyze, Sustain, but what can strike some of its careful readers, is that the RSC does not really have the means to pursue its aims. Its first lines ask: “In a time of widespread scientific and technological change, demographic transformation, political reconfiguration, and cultural diversification, how can leading thinkers come together to help make a better future?” Indeed, how can we do this without adequate public funding? This Strategic Plan calls for instance for the development of Walter House as a hub for regularly scheduled “must-attend” events, for the development of partnerships with academies (national and foreign) and for the implementation of a sharpened focus for contributing advice to policy and public discussion. The Strategic Plan also ambitions to create and encourage the creation of regional networks. All fine and good, but how can we do this, how can we “mobilize, catalyze and sustain” without proper resources? As a case in point, our own Academy of Arts and Humanities has no budget whatsoever (zero, none), to accomplish any of its aims. Should our Academy confine itself to the task of electing new members and of filling its numerous committee positions? As they say, don’t get me started…

Some will argue, even at the RSC, that federal funding would endanger the society’s “autonomy”. This amounts in my modest view to a “Sour grapes” type of argument: because we don’t or can’t get funding, some will reason that that this deficiency is somehow a virtue. Faire de nécessité vertu, as we say in French. To this legitimate autonomy concern, I would respond that I cannot see how, in a country as scientifically and democratically developed as ours, our National Academy could ever be told what to do by any government. Ours is not a totalitarian country. For one thing, one doesn’t hear the three main granting councils gripe about their autonomy when they will receive 925 million from the Federal government. A fraction of this (say, 0.2 %) would enable Canada’s national Academy to be itself and reach its goals. It could very well be that a government that would fund its National Academy would expect it in return to enhance its advisory capacity. To this one can only say: bring it on, that’s one of the reasons we exist. The RSC has much to contribute and its capacities are if anything undertapped. I think it is high time for our RSC to be funded by the Federal government while maintaining its autonomy and that of its members. Of course, it could very well be that some government decides one day to cut or reduce this funding. The RSC will deal with this when and if it happens. For the time being, the imperative seems to be to start pleading for such funding (for those who wonder: the RSC was only funded by the government in its first five years of existence). The stars are aligned as they never were: the Government is eager to invest in quality science and research, it has appreciation for and good relations with the RSC leadership, the needs are obvious, our Society has gone without public funding for too long and this year has shown how much it can contribute to public awareness. Let’s go for it.

Jean Grondin

Message from the Editor - Gary Libben

Looking back, looking forward (le français suit) 

It is a pleasure to be sharing this August 2018 Newsletter of Academy 1 of the Royal Society of Canada. I first wish to thank our President of Academy 1, Prof. Jean Grondin for his contribution and support of the Academy 1 Newsletter.  I would like to thank Prof. Claude La Charité and Prof. Cheryl Warsh for their wonderful contributions to the Newsletter.

The contribution of Claude La Charité, reprinted here from his Royal Society speech of April 2018, captures the immense originality of thought and achievement that has characterized the RSC from its beginnings. The article of Prof. La Charité also highlights the way in which the Royal Society of Canada is heir to the “double tradition” of French and British scholarship and the unique opportunity this have afforded throughout our history and into the future.

Professor Warsh presents the second article in her series of historical spotlights on early extraordinary members of the RSC.  As a graduate of McGill University, I was familiar with the Osler Library.  Now, thanks to Prof. Warsh, I feel myself to have a much deeper human understanding of Sir William Osler and of the academic and professional context of his achievements.

To be sure, the early RSC members that are highlighted by Prof. La Charité and Prof. Warsh were people of extraordinary talent. But it seems to me to be noteworthy that extraordinary talent also requires particular circumstances, social support, and recognition.  And this brings us to the topic of the contribution of President Grondin to this Newsletter.  He highlights the fact that the Royal Society of Canada is the only national Academy of the G7 that does not receive funding from its government.  His article very eloquently explains how, without such funding, key opportunities cannot be realized.

There are a great many such opportunities.  As I mentioned in our last Newsletter, one that strikes me as extremely important is our opportunity to provide best practice models for transdisciplinary scholarship and research. RSC members are leaders who have demonstrated creativity and uncommon ability to connect the dots.  We are thus naturally positioned to advance knowledge mobilization at all levels and to be a key national force in the creation of new knowledge. The RSC can be the catalyst for key polylogues that build collaborations and create new breakthroughs in the arts, scholarship and research.  We already have structures, such as this newsletter, through which such polylogues can be initiated and developed. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Rétrospective et perspective

Je suis ravi de partager ces nouvelles estivales de l’académie I de la Société royale du Canada. Je voudrais tout d’abord remercier notre président de l’académie I, Prof. Jean Grondin, pour ses contributions et son soutien à ce bulletin de l’académie I. Je voudrais également remercier Prof. Claude La Charité et Prof. Cheryl Warsh pour leurs magnifiques contributions à ce bulletin.

La contribution de Claude La Charité, reprise ici de son discours à la Royal Society en avril 2018, reflète l’originalité de la pensée et des réalisations qui caractérise la SRC depuis ses débuts. L’article de Prof. La Charité souligne également la “double tradition” académique franco-britannique dont a hérité la Société royale du Canada et les possibilités uniques qui ont été offertes par cet héritage à travers l’histoire et qui le seront à l’avenir.

Prof. Warsh présente le deuxième article dans le cadre de sa série historique sur les premiers membres extraordinaires de la SRC. En tant que diplômé de la McGill University, je connaissais la bibliothèque Osler. Désormais, grâce à Prof. Warsh, j’ai l’impression de mieux comprendre Monsieur William Osler, d’un point de vue humain, académique et professionnel.

Il est certain que les premiers membres de la SRC dépeints par Prof. La Charité et Prof. Warsh étaient des personnes au talent extraordinaire. Cependant, il est à noter qu’un talent extraordinaire nécessite également des circonstances particulières, un soutien social et une reconnaissance. Cette note nous amène à la contribution du président Jean Grondin. Il souligne le fait que la Société royale du Canada est la seule Académie nationale du G7 à ne pas recevoir de financement de son gouvernement. Son article décrit, avec éloquence, l’impossibilité de saisir des opportunités majeures sans un tel financement.

Il existe de nombreuses opportunités majeures. Comme je l’ai mentionné dans notre précédent bulletin, une des opportunités qui me parait particulièrement importante est celle de fournir des modèles de bonnes pratiques pour la recherche transdisciplinaire.  Les membres de la SRC sont des leaders qui ont prouvé leur créativité et leur compétence rare à faire des liens. Nous possédons donc naturellement une capacité à encourager la mobilisation de connaissances à tous les niveaux et sommes un moteur national primordial pour le développement de nouvelles connaissances. La SRC peut stimuler les polylogues qui créent des collaborations et des avancées dans le domaine des arts, de la science et de la recherche. Nous bénéficions déjà de structures, telles que ce bulletin, par l’entremise desquelles de tels polylogues peuvent être entamés et développés. Nous nous réjouissons à l’idée d’avoir de vos nouvelles bientôt !