Applying social values to good science

Seing the forest for the trees. . .

Seeing the forest for the trees. . .

The contention that science, or at least its pursuit, should benefit society is hardly revolutionary. Where things get sticky is in front of the cameras as politicians explain what they mean when they modify the noun, “research”, with the adjective, “useful”.

So it was on Tuesday when Gary Goodyear, the federal minister of state for science and technology, announced that, henceforth, the National Research Council will concentrate on helping Canadian industry become more innovative and competitive.

“The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he told an Ottawa news conference. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social and economic gain.”

The implication is that the NRC has been spending too much of its time doing “basic” science, and not enough time helping businesses commercialize promising, new technologies. In fact, Mr. Goodyear is explicit when he says, “Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do. So something had to be done.”

But if the NRC has been a laggard in the nuts-and-bolts, dollars-and-cents world of applied science, then what are we to make of its government-approved website? It clearly states this: “The National Research Council (NRC) is the Government of Canada’s premier research and technology organization (RTO). RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

And this: “NRC partners with Canadian industry to take research impacts from the lab to the marketplace, where people can experience the benefits. This market-driven focus delivers innovation faster, enhances people’s lives and addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems. We are responsive, creative and uniquely placed to partner with Canadian industry, to invest in strategic R&D programming that will address critical issues for our future.”

And this: “Each year our scientists, engineers and business experts work closely with thousands of Canadian firms, helping them bring new technologies to market. We have the people, expertise, services, licensing opportunities, national facilities and global networks to support Canadian businesses.”

Far from describing itself as a college of eggheads who sit around in their lab coats screeching “Eureka!” at every arcane discovery they make, it lists its main areas of R&D in proudly pragmatic terms: aerospace, information and communications technologies, security and disruptive technologies, construction, medical devices, energy, mining, and the environment.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the organization’s website is less a reflection of reality than wishful thinking by business-oriented bureaucrats. But that still wouldn’t undermine the NRC’s long track record of useful innovations over the years.

Here’s one from the Council’s archives: “Long before fictional forensic investigators with fancy crime-busting gadgets became popular entertainment, the Canadian Mounties were using some of the world’s best detection equipment to sniff out hidden weapons. Developed by a soft-spoken NRC scientist, the portable bomb sniffer became the standard of explosives detection in international aviation security.”

Here’s another: “The Canadian Prairies are blanketed with millions of acres of bright yellow canola fields. The crop is used in dozens of products, including cooking oil, mayonnaise and printing ink. Over the past five decades, researchers at NRC have transformed a minor crop into one of our country’s most valuable assets.”

And another: “The dedicated researchers at the National Research Council have produced many significant medical technologies and advancements, but perhaps two of the most important are the first practical motorized wheelchair and the first artificial pacemaker. Through these developments, NRC scientists have improved the quality of life of millions of people around the world.”

Mr. Goodyear’s determination to ensure that the NRC sticks ever more closely to its knitting in the field of practical science may be laudable. But is it actually necessary?

The distinction between “basic” and “applied” science is real. As a public institution, however, the Council has pursued the former quite often in the interests of latter as a matter of course (and in accord with its mandate).

Defining what’s “useful”, then, has less to do with science than semantics.

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One thought on “Applying social values to good science

  1. Hello,

    This article was really interesting and well written.

    Thank you

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