Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value

Now there's a quote for you! Provocative in it's shortsightedness and fairly ignorant of how the interplay between scientific discovery and commercialization/technology transfer works. Commercial products are engineered and developed out of basic scientific discoveries.

So who said that?

Sadly, it was the John McDougall, President of the National Research Council of Canada talking about the restructuring and refocusing of the NRC.

Here's some more from the Sun News article:

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".

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. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost."


Citing the NRC's "inability to respond to industry's demands," Goodyear explained that the NRC will now respond exclusively to industry's demands.

"We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development."

The article also includes a quote from David Robinson of The Canadian Association of University Teachers:

"Discovery comes from what scientists think is important, not what industry thinks is important," he said. "Fundamental scientific advancement drives innovation, and that is driven by basic research."

And from the CBC story,

Council president John McDougall said the NRC will become a more attractive partner for business.

"We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development," McDougall said.

"Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn't qualify as innovation until it's been developed into something that has commercial or societal value."

It's a matter of going for concrete results, he added. "We will measure our success by the success of our clients."


"By helping Canadian businesses develop and bring technically advanced products to market, the NRC is supporting the creation not only of jobs, but good-quality, high-paying, long-lasting jobs," he said.

"We will continue to support basic research, but the use of that knowledge is the next step," he said.

The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery, Goodyear said.

"The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain."

Industry should fund industrially-relevant research and development, not governments. Or at least not as the sole research that governments fund. Of course, Canadian companies are notoriously stingy on R&D so it's hard to know why the government would want to save them even more on their R&D budgets.

It's important to hit home runs, that's for sure. But there are different kinds of home runs: inside the park, solo, two run, three run, grand slam. And a triple followed by a sacrifice fly or a double followed by a single both also score a run just the same as a solo home run and can just as easily win the game. In just the same way, we shouldn't get too tied to one kind of research or one model for research funding. Putting all your eggs in one short term basket and hoping it works out is just the same as stacking your lineup with big swingers who aim for the fences all the time but also strike out a lot.



Here are some of my recent posts about the Harper government's war on information in general and science in particular:


More like this

Interesting CBC interview with Nobel Lariat John Polyani about the NRC and its role in Canadian science research. No word on whether Mr. Goodyear continues to be a creationist.

Someday, I will learn to spell both Polanyi and laureate, I promise.

Instead of throwing out fundamental scientific discovery, or making such a strong line of demarcation between "fundamental" science and "commercializable" science, why not improve connections between scientists and industry? Why not work to improve the dissemination of interesting fundamental findings? Why not work to match potentially interested companies and organizations with the research labs? Seems like there are less drastic ways of getting more research commercialized than going this route.

Of course, as someone who worked in an industrial research lab for a while in an organization that had research labs and R&D departments, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to get the two sides to talk to each other, much less agree on tech transfer or what discoveries are "important". So granted, this is not an easy problem, but I don't think it's completely unsolvable.

By Amy Csizmar Dalal (not verified) on 08 May 2013 #permalink

As it happens, we just read John Polanyi's father's essay on why it was important for scientists to choose their own problems. ("The Republic of Science.") This is just an awful, stupid, counterproductive move. There are US legislators trying the same thing. What's odd about it even from a totally pro-business stance is that basic science is too expensive for businesses to do (how many have starved or scrapped their R&D units?), but is absolutely essential for the applied science they do.

Thanks for this post. Scary stuff.

I don't know, GregH. I like the idea of a "Nobel Lariat"!

As a Canadian who works in basic research with potential (but years from applicable) impacts in both healthcare and agriculture, I'm extremely disappointed in our current government's attitudes toward science.

I have dealt with both the American FDA and Canadian, I can say that the american policies are a fair bit more lax than those of their Canadian equivalent. As a consumer be cautious even if a product is approved by the FDA its not saying a whole lot... Money > Innovation. A sad world we live in.

As an American I'm reluctant to comment on Canadian domestic affairs, but this one really takes the cake and has global relevance in terms of precedent. With that disclaimer in mind:

Hoo-boy!, obscurantism comes in more flavors than ice cream!

Yes, commercial R&D is important. And in the United States we systematically destroyed the pinnacle of corporate-funded science when we broke up the Bell System and thereby destroyed Bell Labs. Tragic loss of enormous proportions, and "but now we have iPhone and Android!" is no excuse.

McDougall is as bad as a creationist, and IMHO the people of Canada should go to war on that guy and do whatever it takes within the boundaries of the law plus peaceful civil disobedience, to get him removed.

No pure science? Does that mean no more CA gov funded astronomy? After all, gazing at stars doesn't produce consumer baubles, right? And if some karma-motivated deity out there hurls a large space rock at a Canadian city, will that change a few minds? Better, just ask the Russians whether they think astronomy is pointless because it doesn't produce baubles. Better, ask Elon Musk, and then ask the terribly crass but necessary question of whether Canada has some kind of national inferiority complex to the effect that it will never be able to produce its own SpaceX. Clue: fund the astronomy & astrophysics, and end up with another SpaceX at the end of an unpredictable string of causality.

As for our very own obscurantists, our war in the US starts with the Senate, and there is a mid-term election next year. So we have a chance to vote out some of the worst of our own, which we should do with ferocious dedication. What we need is to start challenging candidates for public office to participate in public science quizzes where they get grilled about well-known facts of nature. And if that backfires in some places, with the proudly ignorant reaping a majority of votes, the places that vote for such people should be quarantined and boycotted until they feel enough economic pain to fix their attitudes.

Scientists and the science-minded tend to avoid political power struggles because, quite frankly, politics is often seen as a cesspool where petty minds compete for petty power using petty tactics. Compare & contrast: the video from the Higgs conference, to any video from the US Congress. The comparison puts Congress to shame. But the blunt fact is, we have got to get fully involved, because if we don't, we effectively abandon humanity to the Machiavellian machinations of the petty power-minded, and thereby thwart our very potential as a species to understand the greater whole.

We rightly view with contempt, empires that amused themselves to death or otherwise spiraled down in decadence and petty tyranny.

Question is, can we do any better?, and what are we willing to do, in order to do better?

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