Tag Archives: National Research Council

How goes the battle for truth?


In the language of triumphalism that always graces a newly elected leader’s   speech to an international audience, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, last week, that “Canada is back”. On the subject of climate change, he insisted, there can be no “laggards”.

The lightly veiled insinuation, of course, was that this once great nation has been brought to its knees, over the past 10 years, by a cynical and zealous crop of intellectual poseurs masquerading as legislators, and, through them, by an especially virulent form of “sciencitis”.

This particular malady is not new. It periodically sweeps across various bodies politic, persuading anyone who will listen that evidence is simply a matter of opinion; that research is a poor substitute for good, old common sense; and that standing in the middle of the tracks as a locomotive bears down on you is a perfectly reasonable posture given that the engineer behind the stick will surely hit the brakes before he turns you into an unrecognizable smudge.

This was the former Conservative Government of Canada’s approach to “public outreach”. Under Stephen Harper, climate science was, at best, a theoretical construct that handy, populist rhetoric could deconstruct in an instant; Environment Canada was a nest of liberal bugs, better swatted than tolerated; and Statistics Canada was a den of uncooperative eggheads who needed to be curtailed, abused and, in the end, fired.

Still, on a trip to Europe in advance of the Paris climate change conference, Mr. Trudeau was unequivocal about the intent of his government: It will look nothing like that of his predecessor’s.

Specifically, he instructed, “Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. . .The rest of us have a lot to learn. . .Canadians) want to know that what they’re doing fits into a bigger picture, because there is no point in bending over backwards if your neighbour or your government is not also doing its part to ensure that we all have the maximum impact together.”

He added: “Every single one of us can and should be much more conscious of the ways we can act to reduce our carbon footprint. . .By working together, we will deliver real benefits for our environment while also strengthening our economy, including the creation of more middle class jobs.”

The words are nice, even credible. And yet, the devil is in the details and the details remain demonic.

In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador, federally funded science initiatives have been eliminated over the past decade with systematic efficiency.

Virtually nothing remains of Fisheries and Oceans, the National Research Council or the Department of Environment in this craggy corner of the Steppe. Where once this region’s scientists and researchers contributed to the national policy agenda, they now perform perfunctory duties teaching their fellow bureaucrats the difference between a green and a blue bag on garbage day. That is the truth of the battle among those who have decided to stick around.

Recent reports from university scholars of my acquaintance suggest that, over the past 15 years, no fewer than 10,000 top-flight thinkers on everything from fluid dynamics to environmental engineering in this region have fled to friendlier and more remunerative locales around the world. They aren’t coming back and their ilk won’t be replaced anytime soon.

So is, as Mr. Trudeau says, “Canada back” as he attempts to sign on to a new climate deal with the rest of world?

Let us attend to the laggards in our own public policy.

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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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