Reap what you sow … or not
I can hear my father, even though he passed away years ago, saying, “I told you so.” But he wouldn’t have taken any joy in saying it, adding a dismissive single headshake about how singularly stunned people can be.
For years an oceanographer at Dalhousie, he was a devoted believer of cause and effect, even when others were claiming the two were hardly connected.
It started, according to my father, under Brian Mulroney. That’s when basic research in Canada started to be tied to the needs of corporations: the centres of excellence that the federal government would fund had to be tied to applied science: in other words,
Particularly valued were the projects that were “twinned” with industry: ones could develop processes using taxpayers’ money, but that then would then be transferred to the private sector for their exclusive use.
In other words, the taxpayer got to pick up all or most of the research and development tab that, in ordinary circumstances, would be a normal part of a company’s business model.
While business owners might complain about government spending, they were quite happy to reap the benefits of others’ work.
Dad’s issue with that approach to science was that it meant basic research would disappear: if the federal government was primarily interested in funding work for business, other work wouldn’t be done.
For example, if you study only the marine species that are harvested by industry, you develop a huge gap in areas that those species actually depend on. Where harvestable fish are, or where they might be, is important: why they are, is not.
The best analogy for what happens when you focus only on the applied side? It’s like looking at a watch and believing that the hands are the most important part of the machine, because they’re the ones that actually tell the time.
It was bad enough under Mulroney: under Stephen Harper, the taps ran even more directly to funding “industry partnerships,” and we began to slide in international rankings, even as governments trumpeted the importance of innovation.
And now, the numbers are in: two different reports show that scientists have been pulling back from basic research. The most recent, released last Wednesday by the Global Young Academy, points out that, in the last 10 years, scores of scientists, something like 40 per cent, moved away from basic science and into more applied areas.
As the report points out, “Dismantling fundamental research support has
changed the very nature of how science is conducted in Canada … many accomplished researchers in Canada are now left completely unfunded and Canada’s future as global leader for innovation and discovery is at stake.”
Innovation isn’t built solely by doing industry’s work. Basic research is what finds the starting point for new ventures. Reinventing the wheel is exactly what it says it is — innovation is actually something different.
But doing anything else in Canada become more and more difficult, as funding for basic research dropped by 36 per cent between 2005 and 2015.
The basic research hole is equivalent, according to the two reports, to about half a billion dollars a year, something that has only started to be addressed by the Trudeau government.
It goes to show that there are a huge variety of ways that governments can do damage with closed-minded ideologies — in this case, they cannibalized research to serve corporate ends, a policy that could only work for the short-term.
Dad could have told you that in the 1980s.
The irony of ironies? Last week’s Global Young report on Canadian science was funded by the German government.
You reap what you sow — or, more to the point, you can’t reap what you don’t sow.
And here we are.