Canadian/American Science Community

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Wed Jun 5 14:20:25 EST 1996


I don't intend to claim any special credits
for Canadians, but would like to provide a few
comments which may (or may not) give some 
grounds to the effect (spurious or real) which 
Bert seems noticing. Let's summarize his 
hypothesis as:


'Canadians [ academic Canadians ] _appear_ to
be more open/vocal critics of the 'system'
than their American colleagues'

Here are my humble comments why this
effect may indeed happen. It has NOTHING 
to do with the qualities of people (i.e. I am
NOT saying that Canadians are more 'brave' than 
Americans), but may be a strickly a systemic 
effect related to the differences in
Canadian/American university system.

Alex Berezin (more comments below)

On 5 Jun 1996, Bert Gold wrote:

> Why are our Canadian colleagues able to be so honest about the state
> of Science, while we down here in the states are not?
> Ricardo Moro's frank disclosure this morning that PEER REVIEW sucks,
> and that the process of scientific publication is more about 
> justification of funding than dissemenation of information,
> appears right on the mark to me.
> But Ricardo Moro is from Vancouver.


In USA professors are normally hired by the 
universities on 9 month basis. 3 remaining months
are paid from grants which, in turn, depend
on the peer review system. 

Hence a professor must think heavily, if he is 
really ready to voice the critisim of peer review 
and/or grnatsmanship elite. It could cost him a 
grant and, hence, a significan portion of his salary
or perhaps even entire job if he/she is on
a 'soft money'.

In Canada professors are hired on 12 months
basis, grants can NOT be use (at least, not
directly) to supplement the salaries. This may 
lead to a lesser dependency on grantsmanship systems,
at least on the part of those professors who
are NIL-funded (about 30 - 40 % of the total
of Canadain profs in scicence and Engineering,
I don't have figure for biomedicals).

Hence many (I guess, most) of these NON-fundees will 
not likely be too much upset, if tomorrow Canadian 
government desides to shut off NSERC/MRC/SSHRC (major 
Canadian funding agenices for the university research)
altogether and use the saved funds for some other
social issues (say, for the improving of schools,
or even TEACHING functions of the univeristies).
Many, in fact, express the sentiments, that this
will indeed be a better use of public money. 

 > I know that there is much wonderful science (particularly genetics)
> going on in British Columbia, and generally in Canada, but do our
> colleagues up there have a patent on wisdom?


My observation is that the wisdom is NOT in any correlation
to the  knowledge or the ability to do 'wonderful science'.
I don't know specifically about genetics, but I have met
Nobel Prize laureates who in my opinion don't measure up to 
the level of average decency. Sorry. 

> Last year there was an enormous strike at the University of Manitoba,
> over issues having to do with academic freedom. Biologists
> were in the forefront, leading the strike...

> Here in the states Academic Freedom is slowly but surely becoming
> lessened; but aside from the Yale Graduate Students (who garner
> little or no support from their faculty colleagues), I see no
> protests.

COMMENT # 3   (not related specifically to USA or Canada)

As a professional group scientists are about the most
DIS-united in the world. Only they (scientists) are
basing each other anomymously by the peer review. 

Other professional groups don't do it, except on rare
occasions (e.g. Tonya Harding). But secretive peer review in
science is a norm, not exception.

It is true that all groups have professional standards
and have mechanisms in place against the violators and/or
crude incompetence, but none amounts to the (presently
almost gestappian) level of 'anonymous peer review'.

Even layweres presenting the opposite sides of the
court case (i.e. formally adversaries), are in fact
PROFESSIONAL ALLIES (since they create job for each 
other working on the SAME case, let from the opposite
sides), while scientists thru their 'peer review 
selectivity of grants' are trying to knock each other 
from the profession.

So, we are back to the Square 1 : internal weakness
of the science community is in itself (primarily, in
the peer review system). Hence, the choice is here 
too: scienists (any only they) are in a position 
of either reform (decisevely, not cosmetically) the
peer review and funding system, or keep insisting on 
the status quo and (in this case, almost certainly) 
face further marginalization of their trade from 
the rest of the society and gradually becoming a 
laughing stock. 

> Can someone help me understand the conundrum of why Canadians have
> taken to speaking out, while American academicians appear
> to have given in?

To compensate for this, they (Americans) have now the 
chance to LEAD the reform. They have starterd a lot of 
good things in the world : why not show an example now in
dismantling secretive peer review system of 'proposals'
and fund researchers on the basis of their profesional 
qualification instead. 

 > Bert Gold
> San Francisco

More information about the Bioforum mailing list