Opponents of the NRC move have basically taken one of two rhetorical tacks. The first is to present the switch in NRC mandate as the equivalent of the government abandoning basic science. This is a bit off, frankly, considering that the government spends billions of dollars on SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR, etc. Even if you’re passionate about basic research, there are still valid questions to be answered about why we should be paying billions of dollars a year to government departments doing basic research when the granting councils fund universities to ostensibly do the same thing.
The second argument is to say that government shouldn’t support applied science, because: a) it’s corporate welfare, and b) all breakthroughs ultimately rely on basic science, and so we should fund that exclusively. It seems as though those who take this line have never heard of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, a publicly funded agency in Germany which does nothing but conduct applied research of direct utility to private enterprises. It’s generally seen as a successful and useful complement to the government’s investments in basic science through the Max Planck Institute, and to my knowledge, Germany has never been accused of being anti-science for creating and funding Fraunhofer.
Another point here: the benefits of “basic” research leak across national borders. Very little of the upstream basic research that drives our economy is Canadian in origin. So while it’s vitally important that someone, somewhere, puts a lot of money down on risky, non-applied research, individual countries can – and probably should – make some different decisions on basic vs. applied research based on local conditions.
The relative benefit of a marginal dollar investment in applied research vs. basic research depends on the kind of economy a country has, the pattern of firm size, and receptor capacity for research. It’s not an easy thing to measure accurately – and I’m not suggesting that the current government has based its decision on anything so empirical – but it’s simply not intellectually honest to claim that one is always a better investment than the other.
Opposition to the NRC change is clearly – and probably justifiably – coloured by a more general irritation at a host of this government’s other policies on science and knowledge (Experimental Lakes, long-form census, etc). But that’s still no excuse for this farrago of flimsy argumentation. Rational policy-making requires us to engage in something more than juvenile, binary discussions about what kind of research is “best”.