Reap what you sow . . . or not

Two dif­fer­ent re­ports show that sci­en­tists have been pulling back from ba­sic re­search

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s can be reached at rwanger@thetele­gram.com - Twit­ter: @ wanger­sky.

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.

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