The government of Canada believes there is a place for curiosity-driven, fundamental scientific research, but the National Research Council is not that place.
Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value,” John McDougall, president of the NRC, said in announcing the shift in the NRC’s research focus away from discovery science solely to research the government deems “commercially viable.”
This is probably the dumbest thing anyone from Canada has ever said in the history of Canada, inclusive of all the Canadians on South Park. And I went to university in Canada, so I’ve heard Canadians say some extremely stupid things.
The statement (and the policy that it supports) is so spectacularly dumb, that in trying to justify subsidising research on economic grounds, it completely misunderstands the economic argument for subsidising basic research!
A quick precis of that argument: Basic research has the characteristics of a public good - it benefits lots of people, but it’s hard for any one firm or organisation to appropriate the revenues. Because the benefits are hard to appropriate, commercially-oriented firms would provide far too little basic research; to redress that problem, governments should subsidise its production. As an aside, public subsidy for research can come in lots of ways, mainly through funding for research projects within universities and research institutes, supporting highly productive researchers or teams (scholarships, sabbaticals, etc), and helping scientists to access external funding - a big and underrated science policy initiative, especially for developing countries) On top of the direct economic benefits that justify the subsidy in the first place, there are lots of other indirect benefits from basic research - including increases in the supply of high-skill workers, the creation of new scientific instruments, and the formation of some new firms (LOL, irony) - which are nicely summarised in this paper by Ammon Salter and Ben Martin.
Imagine if we retrospectively applied McDougall’s argument to past governments, and they only subsidised research that the government deemed to have had commercial viability. The following technologies would never have existed - because their underlying principles wouldn’t have been discovered - or they would have been invented and perfected much later, as their commercial viability wasn’t immediately obvious:
- The internet
- Baby formula
- GPS technology
- Penicillin, most vaccines and many, many pharmaceutical products: most pharma inventions are completely ridiculous as business ideas until they advance to the stage where it’s possible to mass-produce them.
And that’s just a tiny fraction of the outputs generated by government-supported research in English-speaking countries.
This isn’t to say that governments don’t waste money subsidising basic research - there are lots and lots of silly research projects and programs out there*. But that seems like a small price to pay for the life-changingly huge impacts that some basic research programs generate. The thing about these super-high-impact research outputs, and the reason the Canadian policy shift is so flawed, is that you can’t know in advance which ones are going to have a huge impact! And you really can’t tell what the commercial viability of a research project is before you even know what the results of that project will be!
Could America’s National Science Foundation (NSF) have predicted that some random ranking algorithm two geeks came up with would’ve spawned the internet’s most sprawling commercial empire? Well, they didn’t need to - but nevertheless, the NSF sponsored Sergey Brin’s research and eventually Brin’s/Larry Page’s Pagerank algorithm has played a huge part in Google’s success as a profit-making capitalist enterprise.
By the way, does anyone else see the irony in a market-oriented science policy which subsidises only research which “the government deems “commercially viable”” [italics mine]? What happened to letting firms and individuals decide what’s commercially viable? Derp derp derpy derp derp. Canadian right-wingers are a weird breed, man.
Update: There are just so many hilariously stupid** quotes from the original article that I felt like sharing some more of them with you.
Science Minister Gary Goodyear said: “There is 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.
1) The creation of knowledge is, err, basic science. Oh, y’know, just the thing you and your buddy said you weren’t going to fund anymore!
2) “There is only two reasons..” - I guess basic grammar counts among the things that government shouldn’t support, because it isn’t commercially viable…
Citing NRC’s “inability to respond to industry’s demands,” Goodyear explained that NRC will now respond exclusively to industry’s demands.
On what planet does that make sense? “We are pretty good at serving other groups and terrible at serving your group… so to fix that, we’ll specialise in serving your group.” What?
* And of course there are lots of commercially viable research outputs that haven’t been funded by governments.
** And by ‘hilariously stupid’ I mean ‘it is depressing and dangerous that these people have power.’