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National Post again fights research funding strawman

May 22, 2009

The National Post has taken up the research funding debate with gusto these last two weeks, generally providing a counterpoint to the Globe’s criticism of government funding cuts for research. A column this week in the Post by Jack Mintz continues the debate. Mintz, who holds a chair in public policy at the University of Calgary, provides an analysis that, in his opinion, demonstrates that the Conservative government’s recent budget – cuts notwithstanding – actually provides more money for research than the US. Some may argue about Mintz’s uncritical adoption of the government’s definition of “research funding” (Mintz cites the questionable $5.1-billion figure the government trumpets incessantly), but we’re not going to. Instead, we will agree with Mintz’s main thesis and yet again show that researchers “dependent on government support” aren’t just begging for more money.

Mintz says: “The real issue is not the amount of money being spent but whether the government’s approach is the best innovation strategy. Researchers could help a lot by framing the discussion in this way“. Researchers, whether at this blog or in letters and op-ed pieces in newspapers, have criticized the cuts to the research agencies, yes, but have been more vocal in the criticism of how this government is shaping its overall science policy. There are, in my opinion, three major concerns held by researchers:

  1. The budget sent a poor signal about this government’s support for research. This is due to several factors. First, the budget cut a total of $148-million from the three major research granting agencies in Canada and provided no funding for Genome Canada beyond what had already been allocated. When the government is explicitly forming a “stimulus budget” with widespread spending increases in sectors across the board, these cuts become all the more significant. Second, researchers were put out when the government responded to criticism, not with a reasoned argument to justify the cuts, but by ignoring criticism responding only with claims of a $5.1-billion investment in support of science and research. While researchers certainly applaud some of this spending (like increases to the CFI, for instance), the bulk of the $5.1-billion is for basic maintenance and infrastructure upgrades to all post-secondary institutions, including CEGEPs and technical colleges where connections to research are tenuous at best. The refusal to even acknowledge concerns about the cuts by continued trumpeting of “$5.1-billion” suggests the government is deaf to concerns of the research community. Third, the symbolism of cutting funding, especially in a spending budget, is made the more disturbing when contrasted by the rhetoric from the US. President Obama has pledged to make science and research a central component of the American economic recovery. By contrast, Canadian research budgets are “readjusted” to “minimize overlaps”. US researchers are being asked to lead the way while Canadian researchers are being audited.
  2. Government research policy is moving increasingly towards applied research at the expense of basic research. The major granting councils have traditionally funded a wide array of projects across the country, and have generally supported the notion that basic science is an essential component of academic research. Canada is thus a world-leader in the breadth and quality of basic research, as noted in the recent STIC report. Increasingly though, this government has prioritized outcome-focused research at the expense of basic research. The government’s 1997 science and technology strategy is explicit: “Canada must translate knowledge into commercial applications that generate wealth for Canadians and support the quality of life we all want”. CIHR’s new strategic plan calls for increasing funding towards “solutions-based research” and will require end-user input on research projects. Even basic research gets targeted towards applied goals, as in the recent announcement of the $1-billion Clean Energy Fund: “[it will] fund initiatives ranging from basic research to pre-demonstration pilot projects of technologies ranging from next generation renewable and cleaner energy systems to new technologies to address environmental challenges in the oil sands such as water use and tailings”. Every government influences research policy and funding priorities, but the current policies represent a major sea-change in how research is done at the most basic level – this isn’t about investing in cancer research at the expense of infectious diseases, or even fuel extraction vs. global warming; this is about sacrificing the quest for knowledge and its unpredictable discoveries in favour of the conservative technological pursuit of building better mousetraps.
  3. Academic and government research is a great Canadian success, and it should be nutured. While the recent STIC report on Canadian science, technology, and innovation pointed out shortcomings in Canada’s ability to innovate and our overall research and development system, the report was also clear that Canadian academic and government research is nearly best in the world. The report suggested, though, that our “science, technology, and innovation system” is not working. Given that academic research provides the bulk of the science that feeds the system, the problem must lie with the technology and innovation components – which correspond roughly to engineering and business. Indeed, the report, like others before it, pointed out that the major flaws in the sytem lies with industrial R&D and business investment. Government policy, instead of seeking to fix the other components of the system, is instead asking academic research to provide the technology and innovation. Forcing academic research to perform tasks for which it is ill-equipped will result only in the diminishment of the one strength of our system. Instead, it would be better to focus on strengthening the other components of the system – so that the good work of our basic researchers can be effectively used. If scientists wanted to do applied research, they would have become engineers – forcing them to do so now will simply chase them to other countries, leaving our research community as an engineering branch plant trying to make use of others’ discoveries.

The research community in Canada is large and heterogeneous. Scientists come from across the political spectrum. Certainly, most scientists are uninterested in picking a political fight with the government. Rather, the research community is concerned about current directions in science policy and about what appears to be a waning commitment to science and research by this government. We’re not trying to dictate to the government, or to simply demand more money – we’re seeking to involve ourselves in the dialogue about how Canadian science policy should be shaped and what the future of Canadian science will be.

One Comment leave one →
  1. SpongeBob permalink
    May 24, 2009 21:26

    I have the strong impression that in this debate a lot of people are taking shortcuts – with some even trying to throw uppercuts. Sometimes it looks as if those talking about “knowledge-based economy” imply or hope that most of the efforts devoted to generating knowledge should or will lead to new products and services. Hence the will to identify as soon as possible the “valuable” or “transferable” knowledge so that more efforts can be put into its development, at the expense of “less valuable” knowledge.

    This quest for fast and high return on investment has led us to the economic crisis we are in. It is amazing that those who applied the recipe in the financial world are the same who want to apply it to the R&D world, about which they know even less than the one they have messed up.

    Many things have already been said about research funding:
    -We cannot predict where the next important technologies or scientific advances will take place.
    -The role of Academia is first to instruct and train the highly qualified people that are needed.
    -We cannot draw lines and exclude disciplines. Humanities are necessary, in order that new knowledge and technologies should not clash with society.
    -Some research has no direct payoff, but must be undertaken to avoid future financial and human costs; everything having to do with safety and regulation issues, environment, and the common good.

    This means that any government serious about the new economy has to invest broadly, to maintain a basic level of activity and thereby minimize the reaction time in any new, promising direction. This is what keeps society in pace with change.

    Some areas demand immediate action and need more investment, including:
    -Climate change and low carbon footprint technologies; any delay does not add to, but multiplies the consequences.
    -Age-related diseases, increasingly important as the population gets older.

    What about development and technology transfer then?
    It is not the role of universities, nor of the government. Not directly. Their crucial contribution lies in training highly-qualified people and creating an environment that will foster development in the private sector.

    The STIC report is quite clear in identifying, once again, the heart of the problem: Canadian universities do well, but the private sector does not follow. There are many reasons for that, the principal being that Canadian manufacturing is ill balanced. We have branch-plants, and SMEs, but very little in between. The first have their R&D performed elsewhere, the latter do little R&D. We will not be able to transform transnational companies, but we may impact the other ones.

    First, let’s not forget that developing a product for the market is expensive. The good old 1-10-100 rule-of-thumb tells that for every dollar spent on research leading to a new product, 10 will have to be invested for the development, and a 100 more to bring the product to the market. It’s a fact of life.

    With a given amount of money, the government would have to drop most of its funding to concentrate on a few potential products and increase the budgets ten-fold, just for development, without any guarantee that it will be successful, but the absolute certainty that it will not make a penny out of it. Remember, the government is not there to go on the market and compete with the private sector, and this is especially true for the present government.

    To change things, we will have to find ways to entice companies toward R&D efforts using the knowledge and highly qualified personnel coming from universities, by regulation, incentives, or someway yet to be devised. Past strategies have not been successful, such that we will have to think outside of the box, be creative, be aware.

    Let’s repeat this: universities do well, the STIC said it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Help them do better. If some money has to be saved, let’s look at the discrepancy between the huge amounts going to big equipments and infrastructure through the CFI and the lack of operating money given by the granting councils. This leads to massive amounts of money wasted on underutilized facilities and equipments.

    In French, “knowledge-based economy” translates to “économie du savoir”. But “faire l’économie du savoir” also means to skimp on knowledge. Let’s not start doing that.

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