Higher Education Strategy Associates

Arguing for Science in All the Wrong Ways

You can tell it’s pre-budget consultation time in Ottawa because university Presidents are writing op-eds about the importance of research and backing the Naylor Report.  But man, are they ever unconvincing.

Let’s start with University of Toronto President Meric Gertler’s September 12th Toronto Star op-ed entitled “Don’t Let the World Pass Us By on Science”.  The sentiment is fine, I suppose, but the specific evidence Gertler uses to back up his claim is – to put it politely – weak.  It says that we are falling behind countries like “China, Switzerland and Singapore”; the evidence for this is that their universities are bouncing up various international rankings tables while Canadian universities are just staying stable.

Three points here.  First, the idea that Canada needs to spend billions on research so that U of T and a handful of other institutions can be rankings big-shots is perhaps the worst possible argument for supporting the Naylor report.  Second: “China, Switzerland and Singapore”?  What kind of trio is that?  If those three – which between them don’t have more than a dozen genuinely world-class universities – are the only ones we are worrying about, doesn’t that imply that in fact we are doing reasonably well compared to the traditional powerhouses like the US, UK and Germany?  Third, Gertler’s assertion that these three countries are “making aggressive investments in scientific infrastructure and researchers” just isn’t borne out by the data, at least over the last four or five years: in none of those countries are university budgets keeping pace with inflation and growth in student numbers (I’ll be showing this in more detail in a series of blogs over the next few weeks – stay tuned).

The second article of note saw Gertler team up with McGill’s Suzanne Fortier and UBC’s Santa Ono (let’s portmanteau them collectively as “Gerforno” to keep things simple) to pen an op-ed for the Globe and Mail called Ottawa must improve research funding – or risk losing the innovation race.  This one was a bit better as a pitch: now the rationale for investment is Canadian prosperity rather than U-15 bragging rights.  But the logic underpinning it is deeply problematic and points to the continuing poverty of the Canadian innovation debate.

The Gerforno argument runs like this: “hey, look at the breakthroughs Professors at our three fantastic universities have made: Geoffrey Hinton (artificial intelligence, U of T), Bernard Belleau (molecular pharmacology, McGill) and Michael Smith (biotech, UBC).  Their brilliant work in basic science led to huge advances that turned into big companies and lots of jobs, etc.  See?  Basic researcher equals innovation equals Canadian prosperity!”

Now, it’s definitely gutsy of Gerforno to make this argument on national economic grounds when both Hinton and Belleau sold their companies to foreigners (Google and Shire Pharmaceuticals) and Smith chose to found his company in Seattle.  But leaving that aside, as an argument this is still just arguing from anecdote. It doesn’t even attempt to draw conclusive links between basic science and economic growth.

Canada is a tiny country.  In terms of population, 0.5% of the world, in terms of GDP maybe 2%, in terms of science maybe 4%.  The firms that employ Canadians import – minimum – 95% of the technology with which our firms work.  Adding a billion or two to university research does not change that.  We will always be takers of technology, and – as importantly – most of the economic impact of ideas generated by Canadian scientists are going to occur outside our borders.  That’s how open science works in an open economy.

The effect of that extra billion or so on national levels of productivity is going to be tiny.  Sure, we might be able to generate a few more hi-tech or life-sciences companies, but that’s if and only if the rest of the innovation infrastructure – venture capital, skilled managers able to take companies from start-up to production to IPO, intellectual property regimes, tax structures, legislation limiting non-competes, etc – is all working as well.  And I think there’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that all of this isn’t in working order.

At the national level, research capacity is a necessary but insufficient condition for innovation.  Universities, though, have taken to pretending that this is not true, that is sufficient and that a pot of gold lies at the end of the rainbow, if only we can get CIHR and NSERC budgets up another few percent.   They therefore have every reason to play down the possibility that more money on scientific research may be – from the point of view of innovation and economic growth – wasted.  Or that in the absence of the rest of the eco-system being in working order, more research money may be like pushing on a string.

Now, that’s not a reason on its own to dismiss the Naylor Report or the idea of increasing research budgets.  Maybe we ought to do it because science is good in and of itself and a more science-oriented society is a better society.  But if we’re going to justify science in the name of economic growth, we have to do better than arguing by anecdote and pretending that there’s some kind of straight unmediated line between research and growth.

Gerforno can do better than this.  Heck we can do better than this.  We have to.

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3 Responses to Arguing for Science in All the Wrong Ways

  1. One can challenged whether research makes a difference to innovation and economic growth. Not disagreeing with you there. You do suggest at the end that the “science is good for its own sake” argument may be a more honest. Again, don’t disagree. But universities are in no position to argue the “education for its own sake” bit. Haven’t been for some time now. PSEs are just arguing their case by telling the feds what they want to hear, no?

  2. Pingback: Friday links: for love of professing, science journalism = PR, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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