Cracking the algebra of federal R&D funding

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Erecting fences between scientific inquiry and sound public policy

Here’s a math problem for our evidence-distrusting times: In the equation ‘x+y=z’, ‘x’ represents federal government support for commercially promising science and ‘y’ stands for calls among university boffins for a broader definition of useful research. What, then, is the value of ‘z’?

Ottawa is firm about its dedication to the hard arts. In a statement the Globe and Mail carried recently, Greg Rockford, the federal minister of state for science and technology, declared, “Our government is committed to science, technology, innovation and taking ideas to the marketplace. Canada is ranked number one among G7 countries for its higher education expenditures on research and development.”

Well, yes and no.

According to Howard Solomon, editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada, “Overall R&D spending [in Canada] is low and declining as the manufacturing sector shrinks, including in the communications equipment manufacturing sector. . .a new study by leading academics…(says). . .Communications equipment makers scored well for getting patents and articles in scientific publications. . .However, the group also showed a decline in R&D expenditures and economic output in the last few years, whether that was in R&D growth between 2001 and 2012, or export growth.”

He was writing last month, but the chances are things haven’t improved much since then. A Conference Board of Canada report a couple of years ago, concluded that when it comes to public R&D spending, this country merits “a ‘B’ and ranks eighth out of 16 countries. . .Increases in Canada’s higher-education R&D spending since the mid-1990s provided a temporary advantage, but international peers have closed the gap since the mid-2000s.”

The Board then makes this fateful recommendation: “Future public R&D spending should be aligned with innovation and commercialization needs and attentive to the possible ‘crowding out’ of private R&D by public R&D.”

To commercialize or not to commercialize. That is the question. And it’s clear that policy makers and legislators in Ottawa embrace an entirely different vision than that of working scientists who are growing increasingly frustrated with what they view as Ottawa’s entirely false dichotomy between pure and applied research.

Fundamentally, the research community is correct: This really is a chew-gum-and-walk-at-the-same-time conundrum. Hard science doesn’t always immediately yield commercial applications that build productivity and competitiveness for regional and national economies. But without it, you get nothing. No RIMs, no Nortels, no so-called clusters of excellence and innovation corridors.

That Ottawa talks incessantly about commercial applications and seems to eschew any mention of the lonely wetware, entombed in laboratories and classrooms, that’s vitally responsible for them is more a matter of semantics than ideology. Politicians (their party affiliations are irrelevant) are all about results and success stories and ribbon cuttings.

Scientists, it’s safe to say, are all about reason, the long game to enlightenment. And it’s reason to which they invariably appeal, as they have this week during their Stand Up for Science demonstrations in cities across the country. According to a Globe report, the nation’s research community intends to shift its attention to “drafting policies that reflect best practices on research integrity and funding priorities and will urge the country’s political leaders to adopt them.”

In essence, they hope to capitalize on developments over the past eight years in the United States, where science-friendly policies in the Obama administration have sparked something of a renaissance of respect, if not always funding, for the harder disciplines of inquiry. 

“Canadian scientists are where American scientists were maybe a decade ago,” Michael Halpern of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Union of Concerned Scientists told the Globe on Monday. “They’re trying to figure out how to protect themselves from a government that’s increasingly focused on message control over a more open discussion of the facts.”

In fact, they’ve been trying to figure out that problem for some time now, with little to recommend their eventual success short of a change in government. That’s why the value of ‘z‘ is likely, for the moment, to remain a big, fact zero.

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