Over the winter break, the Toronto Star published an editorial on research funding that deserves to be taken out to the woodshed and clobbered.
The editorial comes in two parts. The first is a reflection on whether or not the Harper government is a “caveman” or just “incompetent” when it comes to science. I suppose it’s progress that the Star gives two options, but frankly the Harper record on science isn’t hard to decode:
- The Conservatives like “Big Science” and have funded it reasonably well.
- They’re not crazy about pure inquiry-driven stuff the granting councils have traditionally done and have kept growth under inflation as a result (which isn’t great but is better than what has happened to some other areas of government funding).
- They really hate government regulatory science especially when it comes to the environment and have approached it the way the Visigoths approached Rome (axes out, with an intention to cause damage).
- By and large they’d prefer if scientists and business would work more closely together; after all, what’s state investment in research and development for if not to increase economic growth?
But that’s not the part of the article that needs a smack upside the head. Rather, it’s these statements:
Again and again, the Conservatives have diverted resources from basic research – science for no immediate purpose other than knowledge-gathering – to private-public partnerships aimed at immediate commercial gain.
…by abandoning basic research – science that no business would pay for – the government is scorching the very earth from which innovation grows.
OK, first of all: the idea that there is a sharp dividing line between “basic” and “applied” research is pure hornswoggle. They aren’t polar opposites; lots of research (including pretty much everything in medicine and engineering) is arguably both. Outside of astronomy/cosmology, very little modern science is for no purpose other than knowledge gathering. There is almost always some thought of use or purpose. Go read Pasteur’s Quadrant.
Second, while the government is certainly making much of its new money conditional on business participation, the government hasn’t “abandoned” basic research. The billions going into the granting councils are still there.
Third, the idea that innovation and economic growth are driven solely or even mainly by domestic basic research expenditures is simply a fantasy. A number of economists have shown a connection between economic growth and national levels of research and development; no one (so far as I know) has ever proven it about basic research alone.
There’s a good reason for that: while basic research is the wellspring of innovation (and it’s important that someone does basic research), in open economies it’s not in the least clear that every country has to engage in it to the same degree. The Asian tigers, for instance, emphasized “development” for decades before they started putting money into what we would consider serious basic research facilities. And nearly all the technology Canadian industry relies on is American, and would be so even if we tripled our research budgets.
We know almost nothing about the “optimal” mix of R&D, but it stands to reason that the mix is going to be different in different industries based on how close to the technological frontier each industry is in a given country. The idea that there is a single optimal mix across all times and places is simply untenable.
Cartoonishly simple arguments like the Star’s, which imply that any shift away from “basic” research is inherently wrong, aren’t just a waste of time; the “basic = good, applied = bad” line of argument actively infantilizes the Canadian policy debate. It’s long past time this policy discussion grew up.