The Conservative love affair with targeted research -

The Conservative love affair with targeted research

Tease the day: For years, the government has dedicated research money to very specific areas.


Adrian Wyld/CP

Gary Goodyear’s quest for commercialization continues. The minister of state for science and technology joined John McDougall, the president of the National Research Council of Canada, to tell the country that its premier research institution would, from now on, focus on “commercial value”—not basic research. The idea is that Canadian companies could use more help with research and development, and the NRC is best placed to provide that support.

Each time the government announces such a shift, opposition critics and their allies lash out. They argue basic research produces innovation no one ever saw coming. Indeed, The Globe and Mail points to several such inventions produced by NRC researchers: the most accurate and stable atomic clock of its era, built in 1975; a “portable bomb sniffer,” built in the 1980s; and sophisticated computer animation, first developed in the 1960s. Yesterday, Kennedy Stewart took his turn pointing these things out to the government. The NDP’s science and technology critic wondered aloud during Question Period why Conservatives would “turn their back on important research.”

Question Period volleys back and forth begin anew. We’ve seen this before.

For the better part of the Conservatives’ time in power, they’ve whittled away basic research funding in favour of specific fields. The NRC will now focus its energy on health costs, the manufacturing supply chain, community infrastructure, security, natural resources and the environment.

In each of the government’s past six budgets, new funding dedicated to three granting councils—the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—has routinely bypassed basic research.

In 2008, granting councils were to fund “industrial innovation, health priorities, and social and economic development in the North.” In 2009, SSHRC grants were to be “focussed on business-related degrees.” In 2010, NSERC’s additional $5 million in funding was meant “to foster closer research collaborations between academic institutions and the private sector” by way of the council’s Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation. In 2011 and 2012, NSERC’s funding was again focused on the Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation. Also in 2011 and 2012, CIHR found itself with $15 million dedicated to a Strategy on Patient-Oriented Research. In 2011, SSHRC’s funding was directed at studying the digital economy. In 2012, social sciences researchers were to focus on “industry-academic partnership initiatives.”

And, in Budget 2013, the story’s the same. NSERC will receive $12 million “to enhance the College and Community Innovation Program.” CIHR continues to focus on its Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research, and SSHRC funding will investigate “the labour market participation of persons with disabilities.”

This targeted research is a long, winding road. The government’s been at it for years, through minority and majority mandates. The opposition can criticize the government’s direction. But on this file, it can’t accuse them of being inconsistent.

What’s above the fold this morning?

The Globe and Mail leads with the National Research Council’s revamped focus on business-driven projects. The National Post fronts the apparent economic misfortune that befalls British Columbia when the province elects New Democratic governments. The Toronto Star goes above the fold with the lack of disclosure surrounding federal management consulting contracts. The Ottawa Citizen leads with the “sudden and drastic” changes at the National Research Council. iPolitics fronts Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s vault into first place in national polls. leads with a suspect in Cleveland’s missing women case having handed out flyers when one of the women disappeared in 2004. National Newswatch showcases the Halifax Chronicle-Herald story that asks exactly what the government’s $35-billion shipbuilding contract is supposed to deliver.

Stories that will be (mostly) missed

1. Infant mortality. Canada has the world’s second-highest rate of infant death on the day they’re born, says a study. Aboriginal rates, higher because of a lack of services, push up the number. 2. Aboriginal relocation. NDP MPP Gilles Bisson says Ontario could save millions of dollars a year by permanently relocating northern Aboriginals off floodplains and into safer areas.
3. Soviet research. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced the demise of funding for two programs meant to encourage scientists to stay in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. 4. Experimental Lakes. Despite the intervention of Ontario’s government, scientists can’t access a research station in northern Ontario that helps them understand how pollutants affect fresh water.

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The Conservative love affair with targeted research

  1. I see nothing in the NRC act that permits the PM to interfere with the nature of the NRC’s mandated pursuit of scientific matters.

    • …yet. Wanna bet it will be in one of the omnibus “budget implementation” bills?

      • Page 899. Bottom right corner…under the coffee stain.

  2. Canadian science, and social science, is dominated by Government and that’s why we have to brag about ‘sophisticated’ computer animation in 1960s and use that as example of why we have to continue funding scientists who never seem to produce anything useful for past 40 or 50 years.

    And Canada’s gormless social scientists who receive $$$ through SSHRC are fortunate that we fund them at all.

    Weekly Standard – Fat City:

    I fear that a young Ph.D. looking for work today who challenged the increasingly rigid political orthodoxies would have a hard time. But the discipline of sociology is so ideologically homogenous—a herd, as Harold Rosenberg put it, of independent minds—that this problem is rare. Universities cherish diversity in everything except where it counts most: ideas.

    Neil Gross of Harvard found that 87.6 percent of social scientists voted for Kerry, 6.2 percent for Bush. Gross also found that 25 percent of sociologists characterize themselves as Marxists, likely a higher percentage than members of the Chinese Communist party. I would guess that if Lenin were around today he would be teaching sociology and seeking grants to fund the revolution.

    Philip Tetlock, a research psychologist at Berkeley, tested the accuracy of 82,361 predictions made by 284 experts including psychologists, economists, political scientists, and area and foreign policy specialists, 96 percent with post-graduate training. He found that their prognostications did not beat chance. The increasingly ideological nature of social science will not improve this record.

    • You really got that correlation stuff nailed down, haven’t you.

  3. Also, the most under reported news today in Canada is whether stories about how Moyes is to replace Ferguson are accurate or a bunch of codswallop.

  4. This amounts to nothing more than another corporate subsidy.

    This prestigious scientific institution will now be relegated to a taxpayer paid widget developer for big business.

    The harper war on science continues.

    • My thoughts exactly. Canadian business has never been much interested in doing its own research.

    • Of course. The government should just give out $20M and let the scientists do what they want with it. No strategy, just let them sit in a room and see how many kegs they can drink before their livers explode.

      • That’s how you see pure research is it…wow! You should run for office or something…may i suggest the Con Party? It should suit.

      • Let’s see… that’s sweat the small stuff ($20M) and shrug shoulders at the big stuff ($3.1B). Got it. Thanks for setting us straight.

  5. Yes. If the funding is to improve Canadian businesses understanding of health costs, the manufacturing supply chain, community infrastructure, security, natural resources, and of course, the environment, then I don’t see any objections to trumping that of say, molecular biology, material engineering, nano science, or or other exotic sounding scientific pursuits.
    NSERC $12 million
    CIHR $15 million

    Budget, like the amount set aside to trumpet the Conservative’s Economic Action Plan, to advertise the great accomplishments of these institutes, in advance of any real or perceived accomplishments,
    $50 million

  6. Canadian corporations fail to invest in Research and Development at the same level as their competitors in other countries so now the government is going to do it for them?

    The Conservatives already nationalized a grain company (usurped from those ideologically unsound kulaks who were running it before) and we have recently moved from arms length to cuticle length crown corporations for rail, mail, and broadcasting. What are we going to borrow from Stalin next? A 5 year plan for tractor building?

    • If they do, it”ll probably be skippy in charge of it. The root causes of farming are farmers..and spiffy new govmnt tractors..

  7. I suppose it’s good to know that we shall become experts in technologies that used to be relevant.

  8. Although the government’s R&D has slightly changed focus in the most recent Federal Budget release, there are a number of great programs being funded to support innovation across Canada, from a number of funding bodies, including IRAP, NSERC, Mitacs, and SD Tech, which are detailed here:

    • There’s a vast, important difference between commercial “innovation” and discovery “innovation”, the reason I dislike that buzzword. From Thursday’s Citizen:
      “In 2010 its (NRC) scientists published 746 articles in “refereed” science journals.

      These are academic journals where scientists announce new discoveries. They are refereed because the journal sends submissions to outside experts to evaluate before publishing.

      By 2012 that number had dropped to 200 articles, a decline of 73 per cent.

      The number of refereed papers presented at science conferences fell from 301 to 93 in the same period — down 69 per cent.

      And the number of other papers presented at conferences dropped from 64 to 11, down 83 per cent.”

      Read more: