Impact à la canadienne

I’ve mocked the sometimes risible implications of the British obsession with tying academic research one-for-one with “impact” on industry or society. It’s not absurd to want to ask the question, I would argue, but expecting to be able to get answers about impact on the fine grain that is needed for steering funding decisions leads, I suggest, is a fool’s errand. There is also a (not very) hidden political agenda behind impact: Research that elucidates the origin of the Himalayas or the inner workings of modern religious movements, let us say, has no impact unless the BBC makes a documentary about it. Research that helps one bank increase its market share over another bank by better confusing its customers is rewarded for its impact, because definable (and potentially grateful) people have made money from it.

Nonetheless, the British establishment is not so crass as to suppose that helping to make money is the only possible utility of research. The UK research councils are at pains to point to the multiple “pathways to impact”, through changing public understanding, government policy, health benefits, education. For some purposes, even something as useless as influencing the progress of science can be counted as impact, though it fail to swell the bank account of even the smallest party donor.

To see the full unfolding of impact’s crassness potential, we need to look to Canada. John MacDougal, director of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), announced his agency’s new focus on impact by saying,

Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.

No hedging there about social impact, contributing to public understanding, government policy, etc. Science minister Gary Goodyear  said that

We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development.

This is not quite as outrageous as astronomer Phil Plait makes it seem, when he contends that “the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science”. And he goes on to say that NRC “will only perform research that has ‘social or economic gain’.” An article quotes Goodyear saying

the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

Continue reading “Impact à la canadienne”

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map

Winnipeg

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 10 July, 2005:

To begin with, I should say that, for the first time ever, I was on a Canadian train that arrived on time.  In fact, it was half an hour early.  Of course, that’s just the flip side of the casual timing that I mentioned in my previous posting.

At home, I am rarely out of contact with real-time news sources for very long, so one of the real novelties of travel is that I get to be surprised by an accumulation of news.  We arrived Thursday, July 7 in Winnipeg, and one of our fellow travelers, someone we had spoken with in the Jasper station, told us she had heard that there had been a major terrorist attack in London.  No further information.  Then we walked out into the city.  We passed the provincial parliament building, and noted that the flags were flying at half staff.  It was another couple of hours before we learned that several dozen people had been killed by four separate bombs on public transport in London: horrid, but not another 9/11, not even (apparently) another Madrid.  Such is the calibration of our times.

Winnipeg was a bit of a surprise.  Knowing nothing about the city except its geographic location, I expected it to be like all the flat US cities I know, pedestrian in all but the literal sense.  In fact, Winnipeg is a good deal more attractive than that, on a human scale, pleasant to walk.  I had been warned that torrential rains over the past several weeks had caused an upsurge in mosquito activity, and potentially an early start to the West Nile Fever season.  It sounded bad enough that we considered giving the city a miss — and we might have, if not for the extra fees that Via Rail would have charged to change the dates for our travel, about $600 extra on $700 tickets.  I’m happy they dissuaded us, though, because Winnipeg is definitely worth visiting.  I got a few bites, but nothing terribly unpleasant, and there didn’t seem to be any toxic spraying going on either.  I wish we had more time to see the city, because we ended up spending most of our time (as planned) at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Continue reading “Winnipeg”

We enter Canada

In the end, the immigration procedure was at the very lower limit of the range of hassle I had anticipated.  The immigration officers did not kiss us on both cheeks, shout “Welcome home, future Canadians,” or sing a chorus of “O Canada!”  (It would have been premature, in any case.  Perhaps they do that at citizenship ceremonies.)  But they were cordial, calm, and easy to please.  Over all, the procedure was about as formal and confrontational as purchasing a gym membership — You don’t qualify for this deal, how about this other one? Sorry it’s taking so long, we’ve just had a rush of customers.  (There were two RV-loads of Israelis whose passports were about to expire, requiring some personal attention from the immigration officer.)  There was none of the atmosphere of suspicion that hangs so thick over US Customs and Immigration. In fact, of all the papers we brought with us, the only ones they even looked at were the passports, the letters about the job offers from Queen’s, the HRDC letter (which they said I actually didn’t need, because of NAFTA — the people at Queen’s have a different interpretation), and Chaya’s birth certificate.  The list of items we had with us were cursorily perused, because I handed it to the official who was asking us what we might have to declare, but it was clearly more than she wanted to know.  The biggest surprise was on the issue of common law marriage.  I had expected a discussion that started with a presumption of marriage, then we would explain that we are not married, and would then be asked for the form, and some documentation.  Instead, she asked, “Are you married?  Common law?” and didn’t ask for any proof.

Whereas we ordinarily speak German at home — except Chaya, who typically insists on speaking mainly English — Julia felt it would make a bad impression on the immigration officials for us to be speaking a foreign language between us, so we spoke English.  Chaya was in no mood to change routines.  “We don’t sprech Englisch.  Wir sprechen German.”  She was also upset that the woman took her passport away, and asked quite boldly for its return.

Chaya has been challenged by the new circumstances.  In particular, for the past couple of months she has been telling everyone she meets, apropos of nothing, “I’m going to Canada.  There’s snow there.”  I’ve been trying to explain to her that it makes no sense to tell people that she is going to Canada when she is already in Canada.  She feels a bit cheated by the absence of snow, but if you try to explain seasons to a native Californian two-year-old, you may as well teach quantum mechanics.

Introduction to “Moving to Canada”

Introduction to the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted 20 June, 2005:

Why are we moving?  Why Canada?

The simple answer is, we needed jobs.  Professors are like soldiers and priests, sitting on their bags, waiting for their next billet.  Less so in North America than in Germany, where you do 15 years of postgraduate training, and then cluck about in the university coop until a job opens up.  Between us, we applied for about 60 jobs, were invited for 11 interviews, and received two offers, one from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and one from Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium.  About two thirds of the jobs were in the US, but we only had three interviews.  Two of these were at Yale, where they told us they found us quite interesting, but they didn’t really have jobs open, and weren’t quite sure why they had invited us.  We had heard that Canadian universities often have very generous policies for supporting academic couples, a crucial point when considering how many couples we know who work hundreds or thousands of miles apart, or where one or the other has abandoned all career ambitions.  Queen’s attracted our attention very early for its very generous policy, clearly stated on its website.  They were as good as their word: After offering me a position as associate professor in the mathematics/statistics department, they created a special five-year position for Julia, half in math/stat, half in community health/epidemiology.

While many left-wing Americans like myself have prattled about moving to Canada as a protest against the Bush regime, or to have a field where progressive politics are not forelorn, they pretty much all stayed put in the end.  We have no illusions of Canada as a progressive Shangri-La, but we are going.  Sutter’s Mill pulled more pioneers out west than a dozen idealistic Horace Greeleys.

Continue reading “Introduction to “Moving to Canada””