Canadian Science Agency Will Now Only Support Corporate Science

The entire universe in blog form
May 13 2013 11:11 AM

Canada Sells Out Science

NRC logo
Science is not about the bottom line.

Photo by NRC, modified by Phil Plait

Over the past few years, the Canadian government has been lurching into antiscience territory. For example, they’ve been muzzling scientists, essentially censoring them from talking about their research. Scientists have fought back against this, though from what I hear with limited success.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

But a new development makes the situation appear to be far worse. In a stunning announcement, the National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.

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This is not a joke. I wish it were.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”*. Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, also stated “There is [sic] only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.”

I had to read the article two or three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because 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. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

In the 19th century, for example, James Clerk Maxwell was just interested in understanding electricity and magnetism. He didn’t do it for monetary benefit, to support a business, or to maximize a profit. Yet his research led to the foundation of our entire economy today. Computers, the Internet, communication, satellites, everything you plug in or that uses a battery, stem from the work he did simply because of his own curiosity. This is the sort of research that the NRC is now moving away from. The kind of work Maxwell did then is very difficult to do without support these days, and we need governments to provide that help.

In his statement above, Goodyear did throw in a mention of “social benefit”, and I’ll agree that does motivate many scientists—making life better for people is a strong incentive—but again, you cannot always know what research will do that and what won’t.

And that’s OK, because it’s not like the money is wasted when invested in science. For one thing, the amount of money we’re talking about here is tiny, tiny, compared to a national budget. For another, investment in science always pays off. Always, and at a very high rate. If you want to boost your economy in the middle and long run, one of the best ways to do it is invest in science.  Instead of slicing away the scope of what scientists can do to save pennies and focus on narrower goals, the government should be increasing their budget and widening their vision.

But the Canadian government is doing the precise opposite. If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

By doing this, the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science.

* Correction 1 (May 22, 13:00 UTC): It appears that this quotation from the Toronto Sun has a transcription error; what MacDougal said was very similar to this but not word-for-word. For more information and clarification, please read this update on this situation.

Correction 2 (May 22, 13:00 UTC): In the original text, I wrote that if Maxwell were to apply to the NRC for funding, he would be turned down given the new stress on industrial science. However, the NRC is not a grant-funding agency, so the text has been modified to reflect that. For details and clarification, please read this update on this situation.