Politics - Federal

On Science Funding, Canada's Gloating Days are Over

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 29, 2009

During the Bush era, it was easy for Canada to have a more progressive science agenda than our southern neighbour. Battered by ideological funding decisions, faith-based education programs and suppression of government-supported studies that contradicted the Bush administration's policies, the US was becoming a hostile place for people committed to scientific research.

Canada was a net beneficiary, attracting both foreign and American scientists who had given up trying to make headway against the prevailing anti-science sentiment in the US government.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama as US President, that is changing rapidly. Obama has already committed to increases in public funding and has set a goal of more than three percent of US gross domestic product on research and development - a level that exceeds the tremendous investment of the postwar "space race" that created the modern aerospace and computing industries.

Canada, meanwhile, after already replacing Canada's national science advisor with a "Science, Technology and Innovation council" including private sector executives, is going further in the opposite direction, curtailing pure research spending and targeting investment toward narrow industry objectives.

This year's budget, which contains billions of new dollars for roadwork, sinks most energy R&D money into nuclear and oilsands technologies rather than renewable energy and actually cuts the budget for pure research.

As John Ibbitson argues in the Globe and Mail:

While Prime Minister Harper concentrates on targeted funding in certain specific areas, in hopes of generating marketable ideas that promote economic growth, President Obama is pursing a comprehensive approach aimed at fundamentally reorienting government, schools, universities and the private sector in favour of science and technology.

The goal is to reinvent the American economy as one in which industries spring from new discoveries based on clean-energy research.

"The nation that leads the world in 21st-century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st-century global economy," the President said. "America can and must be that nation."

That strategy is in stark contrast to the piecemeal and even punitive approach that this and previous federal Canadian governments have taken to government-funded research.

The reason most pure research comes out of public funding is that there's little immediate economic benefit to it.

The benefits of pure research accrue to society as a whole through positive externalities, which is why it's a good investment for the public even when it wouldn't make sense from the perspective of an individual firm.

Further, while pure research lays the foundation on which applied research and marketable innovations can eventually be based, it's simply impossible to tell ahead of time which avenues of research are the most economically valuable. A seemingly obscure discovery today could form the basis of a huge industry half a century from now.

Unfortunately, our politicians have swallowed the corporate approach to research - monetize early and monetize often - and tried to apply it to publicly funded pure research.

By squandering all our public research dollars on the applied research of today, the country as a whole will end up worse off as we fall farther behind in the applied research of tomorrow.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted April 29, 2009 at 12:20:17

This reminded me of a story I read a few weeks ago about a Biochemist at Mac who was funded to look for compounds to fight cancer. He didn't find anything to treat cancer, but he did find several compounds which could help someone having a stroke. The problem is that the funding was done through a specific cancer only fund so to work on the stroke compound he'd have to shut the current project down and reapply to get new heart and stroke specific funding, wasting valuable time.

Here's a link to the whole story http://thespec.com/article/546404

History is full of accidental discoveries that advanced our knowledge of science and subsequently led to new technologies. Better funding is one step forward but we also need to cut down on the bureaucracy and red tape to allow our scientists and engineers to get to work, where ever it may lead.

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