UPDATE: Canadian Research Agency Supporting Business over Basic Science

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 22 2013 8:00 AM

UPDATE: Canadian Research Agency Still Selling Out Science

NRC logo
Sometimes I hate being right.

Photo by NRC, modified by Phil Plait

Last week, I wrote a post saying the Canadian National Research Council (NRC)—an agency that supports and performs scientific research and development—was “selling out science,” moving from supporting basic research to concentrating on supporting industrial, business-based research. That situation is still true, and as I’ll note in a moment, still a cause for great concern. But an official of the Canadian government has contacted me to dispute elements of the story.

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!  

I quoted two men who made statements at a press conference announcing the agency’s shift in focus: Gary Goodyear, the Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, and John MacDougal, President of the NRC. After I posted the article, I received an email from Michele-Jamali Paquette, the director of communication for Goodyear, who said I had misquoted MacDougal and misstated the case about the agency’s shift in focus. She provided me with transcripts of the press conference as evidence.

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I read the transcripts, and assuming they are accurate, let me be very clear: Yes, the literal word-for-word quotation I used was incorrect, and one point I made was technically and superficially in error. But the overall point—that this is a terrible move by the NRC and the conservative Canadian government, short-changing real science—still stands. And, in my opinion, Goodyear’s office is simply trying to spin what has become a PR problem.

“Commercial Value”

First, let me clarify the quotation by MacDougal. I could not find a transcript of the press conference at the time I was writing, so I quoted the Toronto Sun, which itself quoted MacDougal as saying, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

Paquette told me that statement does not appear in the transcript, and she is correct. The closest line was MacDougal saying, “A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting but it doesn’t quality [sic] as an innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.”

Science and money
This is not why most scientists do what they do.

Photo by Shutterstock/Hasloo Group Production Studio

It seems clear the Sun reporter had a transcription error in the quotation, which I then propagated on my blog. For that I apologize. But let’s look past the word-for-word quotation and listen to what MacDougal was actually saying. The NRC is shifting focus from supporting basic research on its own merits to supporting research that has direct commercial implications. And that being the case, the point in my original post still stands.

I’ll note that in her email to me, Paquette quoted my own statement:

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”

Paquette took exception to my use of the word “literally,” emphasizing it in her email. (The link, in both her email and my original post, goes to the Toronto Sun story with the garbled quotation.) Apparently MacDougal did not literally say that. But the objection strikes me as political spin since the meaning of what MacDougal said at the press conference is just as I said it was in my original post.

As I pointed out in my first post: Science can and should be done for its own sake. It pays off in the end, but that’s not why we do it. To wit …

Maxwell’s Demonization

In my original post I used the example of James Clerk Maxwell to show that it’s not possible to know beforehand what viable commercial applications will come from scientific research. I said that if Maxwell were to apply for funding at the NRC today, he would be “turned down flat.”

Paquette pointed out that the NRC is not a grant funding council, and that there are other organizations under the Canadian government that perform this task. That was my error, and I apologize for being imprecise in my language.

However, again, I’ll note this is something of a technicality. The NRC does perform research, funded by the government, and is shifting its focus from basic scientific work to that which is “commercially viable” (a direct quotation of MacDougal from the transcript). So yes, Maxwell would not apply to the NRC for funding, but were he to try to pursue that research while employed by the NRC, his research would currently be in danger.

Unfortunately, despite these errors, the overall meaning remains the same: The NRC is moving away from basic science to support business better, and the statements by both Goodyear and MacDougal are cause for concern.

Science for Science’s Sake

I can’t help but note what Paquette did not dispute in my article.

For example, I quoted this statement by Goodyear: “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.” Like the (corrected) quotation from MacDougal above, I got this from the Toronto Sun, and checking it against the transcript shows some minor transcription errors that don’t change the statement in any meaningful way. And I still stand by my claim that this is an appalling statement.

And I’m not alone. Chemistry World has this, from Cathleen Crudden, president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry:

“If we can involve new industrial and especially international partners in Canadian research, that will definitely be an advantage.” However, she believes that research will no longer be about doing the best and biggest science. “This is always a mistake,” she says. “If we want to succeed in science and technology, we need to always strive to answer the biggest, highest impact questions. If we don't take the lead on answering the big questions, then we will be the ones buying technology, not selling it.”

Science magazine has this from New Democrat science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart:

“They [the conservative leaders in Canadian government] don't want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sighted approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs.”

And I’ll note that Paquette also had nothing to say about the current Canadian government’s muzzling of scientists—documented in the BBC, the National Post, MacLean’s, and the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, to name just a few media sources—which is the point I started off with in my original post. That, to me, is still a grave and shameful matter.

To be fair, the NRC is not the only arm of the Canadian government working on scientific R&D. There are many agencies supporting science, but the current government has been making pretty big cuts across the board. I have long maintained that even in times of financial slowdowns, investment in science is critical. Otherwise, you’re eating your seed corn.

And that is the heart of the matter: The action of the NRC is indicative of the current Canadian government’s attitude toward science, which in many ways mirrors what I see in the politically conservative side of the United States government. David Ng at Discover Magazine has an excellent roundup of this. So does Unmuzzled Science. John Dupuis, who writes the Confessions of a Librarian blog, has a timeline of what he calls “The Canadian War on Science”, which is damning indeed.

So I stand by the overall message of my original post. Moving away from basic scientific research is a mistake. Focusing on corporate-profiting science may have some advantages, but not at the cost of taking away basic science. It is trading the future for more immediate and mid-term profitability, and that is a mistake.

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