Science in Canada: Failure doesn’t come cheap

A prominent science blogger tears the NRC apart

Congratulations, National Research Council: Just about the only international coverage for your recent change in approach is this article in Slate tearing you a new one.

“…I was thinking that no one could possibly utter such colossally ignorant statements. But no, I was reading it correctly. These two men—leaders in the Canadian scientific research community—were saying, out loud and clearly, that the only science worth doing is what lines the pocket of business.

 This is monumentally backwards thinking….”

I’ve been in Ottawa so long I’m well trained: My first instinct was to check whether the article’s author is a Canadian with a long history of donations to the Liberal party. But no: Phil Plait is one of the more prominent science bloggers in the U.S. He didn’t write this because he’s a Canadian looking for bigger bang outside our borders. He wrote it because he believed it. 

Here’s Jonathan Gatehouse’s recent article on the same set of issues, which close to 30,000 of you have already read online.

Now, here’s the thing. When critics attack the Harper government on its approach to science, the government has an easy comeback which has the distinct advantage of being true: It is spending more on science than any Canadian government ever has. The chart in this good roundup of the science-in-Canada debate by Julia Belluz makes the point nicely. The Conservatives came to office with no strong idea about what to do in the field, and eventually decided to hold and slowly increase the overall budgets they inherited from the Liberals.

But new dollars have been tightly targeted rather than put into general research. Success rates for grant applicants are way down. The cuts to specific programs Jonathan describes have received a lot of publicity. So whereas the perception at the end of the Chrétien years was that there was a lot of momentum in Canadian science research, the perception now is that there isn’t. As Stephen Harper knows and has demonstrated in fields like criminal justice policy, perception often trumps the facts. So the government is paying more tax dollars for a lousy reputation than its predecessor paid for a good reputation. That matters when a researcher is deciding whether to move his family from Stanford to Edmonton. And the likeliest upshot of the dawning realization that momentum is not following government dollars is that there will be fewer government dollars. Oh well.

 




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Science in Canada: Failure doesn’t come cheap

  1. science funding is best directed by scientists, just as arts funidng is best directed by artists.

  2. So .. gummint shouldn’t try to pick winners in the wonderful world ‘o
    bidness. Instead, gummint should try to pick winners in science .. as
    recommended by bidness. Got it. Makes sense now.
    Bidness can tear up their R&D budgets and put it into stock buy-backs.
    it’s all good.

    • On the bright side…they wont be needing so many of those CIT cuts now and in the future, right. Now the gummint’s on the job for them

  3. Of the two “leaders in the Canadian scientific research community” the Minister is a creationist, while the head of the NRC is an engineer, not a scientist. And yes, it makes a difference, just like when the Harper-appointed head of Library & Archives Canada has some kind of business degree but no training as an archivist or librarian.

    • Surely a small role for a “rehabilitated” Bruce Carson can be
      found in this worthy venture. He is sooo familiar with the
      interface of business and science .. it is his life !

    • Creation and science go together more than evolution and science. Something from nothing (evolution/big bang) is more magic than science…even Darwin discounted his own theories…and engineers can lead science just as well as any scientist or better…

    • It wouldn’t make a huge difference if he were a research engineer, as the line between science and engineering can easily blur. But he works in engineering management – which is, as you say, night and day.

  4. The model the Conservatives have put upon the National Research Council will limit their activities to incremental work that is small r, large D. Going forward, NRC will need to find industry partners to fund a substantive portion of any project. They already had these kinds of projects, now they will have exclusively jointly funded projects.

    Why is that a bad thing?

    Companies will only put significant cash into projects in which they can ensure they can capture the benefits. This pushes the projects to be incremental development of existing technologies since it is possible to make predictions about outcomes. There are a few exceptions where industrial consortium invest in mutual problems of interest but these are relatively rare and involve relatively small projects.

    The new NRC model essentially subsidizes companies already doing development work to outsource some of that work to the NRC.

    The argument that the public should fund such work is rather weak, compared to the argument for publicly funding disruptive technologies. By their nature, it is hard to predict which companies (possibly new ventures) will benefit from the introduction of a disruptive technology. On the other hand it is clear that there are huge regional benefits from being the place those new companies set up shop.

    NRC’s new motto should be: ” we are tinkering with yesterday’s technologies today!”

    • “This pushes the projects to be incremental development of existing technologies since it is possible to make predictions about outcomes.”

      Yes. From a competitiveness standpoint, this approach can’t generate sustainable differentiation. If the opportunity is obvious or quantifiable from the outset, it will be obvious to anybody in the field.

      There are lots of regional development agencies that support companies in this sort of development – I would guess that most populated parts of the country fall into more than one. It doesn’t make sense to create a federal agency as well, unless you’re looking for a new way to subsidize big business.

  5. It’s about time someone did this. After all the hard science stuff’s been done. Nothing new out there worth discovering…might as well monetize the lot.

    I’m looking forward to my new anti CC hazmat suit. The one that has a built in chip that tells me when i need to take my next immune system booster pill…and where i can find 10cents off the new batch of safeway brand genetically enhanced H2O.

  6. The Harper government also spent a lot of money on gazebos…so who really cares about the amount they spent or are allocating for research?

    • Gazebos are nice.Gazebos are fun. Gazebos are good for you. If it were left up to the pointy heads the money would have been wasted on finding out why gazebos are such a good idea, and why we needed more gazebos…specially in my riding. This way we get the best of both worlds, without all the wasted time on reeseeaarchh eh…Mr smarty pants.
      TC

      • Because Canada gets ahead by being ahead in tech. All that money the US threw at NASA a generation ago is paying colossal dividends now.

  7. Does someone else see a pattern here? It seems that in many areas the current government is spending more to get less. Examples include science research, data (we paid more to run the last census and got less reliable data), law and order, military procurement. Next is probably foreign aid. Other examples out there?

    • I believe it is commonly referred to as incompetence.

    • How about Mike Duffy? Would he qualify as an example?

  8. The way people are reacting, you’d think NRC was the end-all, be-all of science in Canada. It’s not. Take a look at the work of NRCan or NSERC, to name a couple of organizations off the top of my head. I know and have worked with people at NRC, so I don’t mean to be unkind, but it’s been a very expensive organization for the results it delivers. I’m skeptical of the new direction they’re taking – I dont think their people have the experience for the new role, and I’m concerned that the money won’t be spent well. Still, it’s hard to see this as a massive blow to science in Canada.

  9. If the Conservatives find the cure for cancer in the next five years, great. Otherwise, taking science out of the hands of scientists and putting it into the hands of stockholders (who do people think really run the businesses?) is the biggest pile of doo-doo in Canada’s otherwise young but stellar history in Science.

    • To follow up on this, how many businesses share their trade secrets? So, how many scientific discoveries are they going to share if it somehow helps their competitors to make even bigger, more lucrative discoveries? You think Samsung and Apple suing each other for patent infringement because their phones happened to be rectangular in shape is bad? Pffft. A hilarious joke compared to the real harm that will be done to Canada’s scientific community — there won’t be a scientific community, just pockets of people in labcoats huddled throughout the country in foxholes dug out by corporate lawyers.

  10. Science should benefit Me and you and NOT the Corporations already full pockets. Let the Multinationals do their own friggin R&D and direct ALL Government research for the sole benefit of the general population. Where is the roadmap to a better future for us ? Where are the plans for a Utopian society ? Its all about the fulking Corporation and I’m sick of it. By the people, For the people. Not ONE politician has OUR interests in mind on ANY issue. SAD

  11. Gary Goodyear is a college dropout. John McDougall is a career manager. Between them they have one academic degree in applied science. They have no business running an organization like the NRC, let alone running it in dramatic new directions. They have no experience to base their claims, and no feeling or understanding for what academic life is about. You could list any invention, and pair it with a list of basic research that makes it possible. Sure. You could do that for every single thing you find around you. It doesn’t help, because the fact is that two people that are essentially scientifically illiterate are running the national lab and standards institute. And no, “scientifically illiterate” is not an exaggeration – they’re running one of the world’s preeminent scientific institutions, not a high-school classroom. That’s repulsive. Gary Goodyear is an exceptionally ill-fitted appointment, who made an exceptionally ill-fitted appointment in John McDougall. It is utterly incompetent, its incompetent to the point of sabotage.

    This is the opinion of somebody working in science. Somebody who was born, raised, and educated (bachelors, masters, and now my Ph.D.) in Canada. And it’s the opinion of somebody who is now exclusively funded by the United States, and is receiving job offers exclusively from the United States. And guess what? I’m going to take them up on it, too.

    • Just you wait until Gary invents our own mars shuttle that runs on oil sands…then you’ll wish you had stayed here quitter.

  12. I think it is long overdue for Canada to nationalize the technology industry, and that most of you are whining because the CP out socialized the NDP on this issue. Now that we have banking and technology sectors under control, I hope we can have a reverse-takeover and seize the resources next.

    • Then the world eh. Don’t make the mistake of invading Russia in winter time though.

  13. President of NRC is no Engineer…. He doesn’t even have a Ph.D

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