The Canadian War on Science: National Research Council's new focus ignores how science works

I know I've already posted about the changes at the NRC, but this recent David Suzuki article frames the issue so perfectly that I thought I'd post about it again.

The article is called National Research Council's new focus ignores how science works. The core issue is that recently the Canadian Federal Government's National Research Council announced that it would change it's focus from performing basic, curiosity-driven research to more applied research, preferably sponsored by Canadian industry.

From Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear's speaking points:

Ladies and gentlemen, we invest in science and technology for two reasons: to create knowledge and to exploit that knowledge for social and economic gain. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost.


Today, the NRC embarks on an exciting, new journey—a redirection that will strengthen Canada's research and innovation ecosystem for many years to come. And this refocused NRC, with a business-led innovation mission, is pivotal to the future of Canadian jobs, economic growth and our long-term prosperity.


The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. The refocused NRC will support Canadian business by becoming a research and technology organization, similar to Germany's very successful Fraunhofer Institute—Europe's largest application-oriented research organization—which undertakes applied research of direct benefit to private and public enterprise and to society.

Canadian businesses in need of support to bring their ideas to market can now access the specialized technical services, extensive scientific expertise and unique infrastructure through the NRC's centres that are located in every province across the country.


The NRC is open for business. We are here to support Canadian industries in need of research support. We encourage any business—small, medium or large—to contact the NRC. You have a partner in the NRC.

This CBC article explains the basics quite well: National Research Council move shifts feds' science role.

Goodyear also pointed out that Germany's Fraunhofer Institute served as a model for the NRC's new business-oriented focus. The institute is a series of 66 smaller institutes and research units owned by the German public, the federal state and state-level governments. It undertakes research of benefit to private and public businesses as well as society as a whole.

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."


NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart called the shift in direction for the NRC "short-sighted" and said it could actually hurt economic growth in the long run, because it scales back the kind of fundamental research that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.

Stewart also warned that some of Canada's best and brightest minds might be lost to other countries that invest more heavily in pure science.

“The government has been handing pink slips to scores of NRC scientists and researchers, lowering the organization’s research capacity and devastating internal morale,” he said. “It is hard to see how business will get scientific advice from the NRC if they fire all the scientists."

And now back to Suzuki's National Research Council's new focus ignores how science works.

I believe we should support science because curiosity and the ability to ask and answer questions are part of what makes our species unique and helps us find our way in the world. Still, basic research aimed at specific outcomes can lead to game-changing applications, from transistors and pesticides to nuclear bombs, penicillin and oral contraceptives. But how do new applications flow from science?


Many scientists support a mythical notion of what makes science innovative. To be "relevant", they write grant applications as if their work will lead to cures for cancer, new energy forms or salt-tolerant plants, depending on the priorities of funders and governments. This creates the illusion that science proceeds from experiment A to B to C to solution. But we really have no idea what results an experiment will produce. If we did, there would be no point to the experiment.

It's more likely that a scientist will do experiment A leading to F then O, while another in a different area will do experiment Z leading to W then L. Maybe the two will meet at a conference or even a pub and, in talking about their respective work, realize that results O and L could lead to a new invention!


Canada's contribution to science is minuscule compared to countries like the U.S., Britain, Germany and even China. But if our top scientists are as good as any, they become our eyes and ears to cutting-edge science around the world, are invited to speak at top universities and institutes and attend meetings where the latest ideas and discoveries are shared.

If we're serious about creating partnerships between science and business, we have to support the best scientists so they are competitive with any around the world. We also have to recognize that innovation and discoveries don't always come from market-driven research. We should recognize truly internationally groundbreaking work to inspire young people who will grow up knowing they can be as good as scientists anywhere. This takes commitment from governments, more generous grants and long-term support.

There's nothing wrong with applied research. The reality is that Canadian businesses are lagging behind in R&D spending. But the solution to that problem isn't for the government to use public resources to do it for them. The solution is for private businesses to invest in the R&D they need to do themselves. The government should focus on the kind of research that businesses can't and won't do -- basic, long-term, curiousity-driven research, the work that doesn't have the immediate pay-off that businesses need to stay healthy and competitive. Sometimes basic research results in commercially-viable innovations, but mostly it doesn't. And when it does, it tends to take a long time with countless research teams each playing a small role in coming up with the breakthrough that leads to the product.

Business and government should each play their most appropriate role in the science ecosystem. It isn't government's role to risk public money to try and pick commercial R&D winners.


Some previous posts of mine that focus on Canadian science policy:


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"The government should focus on the kind of research that businesses can’t and won’t do "
Alexis de Tocqueville spends at least a chapter saying this, around the year 1840.

Nothing wrong with creating something along the lines of the Fraunhofer society. But one should mention that Germany also has the Max-Planck society (about same size) for fundamental research and the Helmholtz-society (twice the size) also biased towards fundamental research (running of big machines, mostly).

By Ulf Lorenz (not verified) on 18 Jun 2013 #permalink

I want to thank you for all your had work on this issue.Right now we are tackling many things including proven cases of election fraud. Many people don't realize that the Harper government has a history of close ties to the Republican party and is insidiously changing Canadian laws to reflect their evangelical dogma .For example, Stephen Harper worked for years in the National Citizen Coalition, a branch of Focus on the Family.
The Evangelical Republicans have managed to sneak their tentacles into the Canadian government.

By R. Becker (not verified) on 19 Jun 2013 #permalink