Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: science

March 13

Tea Leaves on the Rideau

Last Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau set the date for the federal budget for next Wednesday (March 22) and naturally people are wondering: what goodies are in store?  Without being privy to any inside information, here’s my take on where we are going.

At the press conference announcing the budget date, Minister Morneau dropped some important hints.  The biggest one is that, contrary to what had been heavily promoted for the past year, this budget will not be an “Innovation Budget”, but will represent a “downpayment” on an Innovation Budget.  From this we should probably deduce two things.  One: the feds are broke.  Well, maybe not broke, but certainly unwilling to increase borrowing in the face of a $30 billion deficit, slow growth and adverse demographic trends.  Two: the government has – THANK GOD – attained enough self-awareness to discern that does not really know what it’s doing on this file.  I noted back here that the Finance Minister’s Economic Council was flatly in opposition to the Innovation Ministry’s ideas about innovation clusters, and it probably came to the conclusion that making big budget commitments in the face of such disagreement was untenable.

To be clear: I am thrilled with this outcome.  Yes, it’s too bad the feds seem to have wasted a year on this file.  But far better to take a sober second look at the issue and make smart policy rather than to charge forward in order to meet an artificial deadline.  I also take it as a favourable sign that the government has brought Ivey Professor Mike Moffatt – co-author of a large recent piece on Innovation Policy by Canada 2020 – into the ministry on a temporary basis. For one thing, he actually understands what innovation policy means outside the tech sector, a concept which has been missing from ministry discourse since the minute Minister Bains was appointed.

(Many of you have been asking to me on twitter to explain what the hell the terms “Innovation” and “Innovation Policy” actually mean.  Sit tight: we’ll work on that one this week.)

There were also hints from the Minister that this would be a “skills” budget, a sentiment which has left many puzzled.  A year ago, the big issue for the near term was supposed to be the renegotiation of Ottawa’s Labour Market Development Agreements with the provinces, which mostly hasn’t happened. Since then there have been no major policy initiative apart from that.  There has been – via the consultations on Innovation policy – something of an understanding that skills are a big part of the innovation problem, but government thinking doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond “more coders”! as a result.  (At a rough approximation, this government’s skills policy is more or less the same as the last ones, only if you just take out all the references to welding and insert the coding instead).

The worry here is that the “big initiative” will in fact be the implementation of the horrifically-named “FutureSkills Lab” promoted by Dominic Barton, chair of Morneau’s Economic Advisory committee (which I described back here).  If that’s the case, we may be about to view the first really big policy disaster of the Trudeau era.  First of all, no one is going to buy FutureSkills – essentially a kind of policy laboratory – as something which will help Canadians in anything other than the long term.  Second of all, the feds have yet to discuss the idea meaningfully with the provinces and without their buy-in, this initiative will be Dead on Arrival, just as the Canadian Council on Learning was.

To be clear: I don’t think this is going to be the “big initiative”.  I don’t think the Liberals are that stupid.  But I guess we’ll see.

What about Science?  Here, the news is not good.  You may recall that the Government of Canada commissioned a Fundamental Science Review, and asked by the inimitable David Naylor to run it.  Naylor, as requested, submitted the report to the Minister of Science in December.  The Government of Canada has yet to publish it and refuses to answer questions about when it might be published.  Why?  It seems transparently obvious that the government found some of the findings inconvenient, and would prefer to bury it until after the budget.  Maybe the report suggested the system needed more money (which would have been beyond the committee’s remit since it was only asked to comment on the management of the system, not the size).  Maybe the report suggested that certain science bodies which the government has already decided to fund were redundant.  Either way, the government seems to have decided the budget will be easier to spin if we haven’t all first read Naylor’s report.  I have a hard time imagining how this could a harbinger of good news.

In sum: don’t bank on anything big in this budget.  In fact, brace yourself for at least one major piece of goofiness.  Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen, but best to be prepared.

November 11

Times You Wish There Was a Word Other Than Research

There is something about research in modern languages (or English, as we used to call it) that sets many people’s teeth on edge, but usually for the wrong reasons.

Let’s go back a few months to Congress, specifically to an article Margaret Wente wrote where she teed-off on a paper called “Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction”.   Her point mostly was about “whatever happened to the great texts?”  Which, you know: who cares?  The canon is overrated, and the transversal skills that matter can be taught through many different types of materials.

But she hit a nerve by articulating a point about research in the humanities, and why the public feels uneasy about funding them.  Part of it is optics, and what looks to outsiders like childish delight in mildly titillating or “transgressive” titles.  But mostly, it just doesn’t “look like” what most people think of as research.  It’s not advancing our understanding of the universe, and it’s not making people healthier, so what’s it doing other than helping fuel career progression within academia?  And that’s not a judgement at all on what’s in the paper itself (I haven’t read the paper, I can’t imagine Wente did either); even if it were the best paper at Congress, people who defend the humanities wouldn’t likely point to a paper whose title contains the words “the Moral Functions of Breasts” as a way to showcase the value of humanities research.  The title just screams self-indulgence.

And yet – as a twitter colleague pointed out at the time – whoever wrote this piece probably is a great teacher.  With this kind of work, they can show the historical roots of things like sexuality in comics, which is highly relevant to modern issues like Gamergate.  If we want teachers to focus on material that is relevant and can engage students, and if you really want scholarly activity to inform teaching, surely this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged.  As scholarly activity, this is in a completely different – and much, much better – category than, say, the colonoscopic post-modernist theorizing that was so memorably skewered during the Sokal Affair because you can clearly see the benefits for teaching and learning.

But is it “research”?

The academe doesn’t like to talk about this much because, you know, you stick to your discipline and I’ll stick to mine.   You can push the point if you want and claim that all research is similar because, regardless of discipline, research is an exercise in pattern recognition.  There are, however, some fundamental differences between what sciences call research and what humanities call research.   In the sciences, people work to uncover laws of nature; in the social sciences, people (on a good day) are working on laws (or at least patterns) of human behaviour and interaction.  In humanities, especially English/Modern Languages, what’s essentially going on is narrative-building.  That’s not to say that narratives are unimportant, nor that the construction of good narrative is easier than other forms of scholarly work.  But it is not “discovery” in the way that research is in other disciplines. 

And here’s the thing: when the public pays for research, it thinks it’s paying for discovery, not narrative-building.  In this sense, Wente taps into something genuine in the zeitgeist; namely, the public claim that: “we’re being duped into paying for something to which we didn’t agree”.  And as a result, all research comes under suspicion.  This is unfortunate: we’re judging two separate concepts of scholarly work by a single standard, and both end up being found suspect because one of them is mislabeled.

To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that one of these activities is superior to the other.  I am suggesting that they are different in nature and impact.  For one thing, the most advanced scientific research is mostly unintelligible to lower-year undergraduates, whereas some of the best narrative work is actually – much like Sexed-up Paratext – intended precisely to render some key academic concepts more accessible to a broader audience.

It is precisely for this reason that we really ought to have two separate words to describe the two sets of activities.  The problem is finding one that doesn’t create an implicit hierarchy between the two.  I think we might be stuck with the status quo.  But I wish we weren’t.

November 03

Scientists vs. Universities: Does War Lie Ahead?

Because universities lobby for science money, there is often a naïve assumption that the interests of scientists (academic ones, anyway) and those of universities are aligned.  But they are not.  In Canada, there is sometimes broad agreement about what to push for (the Canada Foundation for Innovation in the late 1990s was an example), but I would argue that today the interests of scientists and those of universities are about as far apart as they have been at any time in my adult life.

There are two major flashpoints in this fight.  The first has to do with the changing characteristics of science in this country.  Under the Harper Conservatives, there was an ever-increasing tendency for the granting councils to add increasing amounts of “applied” elements to basic research funding.  I wrote about this yesterday so I won’t belabour the point, except to say this: the main university lobbies – Universities Canada and the U-15 – were very, very quiet about this drift.  I can’t say they never raised the issue with government; my guess is that they did so behind closed doors.  But they were never seen to put any public pressure on government on this file, presumably because they fretted about the Conservatives’ reaction to any public discourse that wasn’t uniformly positive.  But that angered and alienated a lot of researchers.

The second flashpoint was the creation of Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF).  This was a new pool of research money presented in the 2014 budget, which was designed to give whacking huge loads of cash to individual research universities on a particular research theme.  The first round of awards, which wrapped up just before the election, saw money go to five universities: $114 million to U of T for regenerative medicine, $66 million to UBC for quantum materials, $33 million to Sherbrooke for quantum science and quantum technologies, $37 million to Saskatchewan  for Global Food Security, and $98 million to Laval for something called Sentinel North, which I can’t begin to explain, but sounds pretty cool (all figures are over 7 years).

Now, CFREF makes tons of sense from the point of view of individual universities.  Getting a big hunk of cash for a single project is a great way to give a university an enhanced and more focused profile, and to find ways to leverage money from other sources.  Basically, it’s a way of getting the federal government to act like a transformational donor.

But there are two big problems with CFREF; first, it’s new money for research at a time when the value of granting council dollars are slowly falling, and second, it’s desperately unclear that spending money this way makes any sense for the country as a whole.  If you really thought it was important for the country to spend $66 million on quantum materials, is dropping all of it at one university likely to be the most productive way to use it?  (Hint: no.)  Researchers understand this problem, and are deeply annoyed that university presidents don’t seem to.

And so, I think, we have a recipe for a real struggle.  An increasing number of academic scientists are coming to believe that university presidents do not represent their interests.  But they have almost no means with which to get their opinion across in Ottawa.  Neither CAUT nor the disciplinary federations have anything like the power and access of the U-15 or Universities Canada in the capital.

So what could happen?  I am starting to think this fight may get played out on Senate floors across the country.  Academics can’t defeat university presidents in Ottawa, but they can pass motions in Senate directing the university to, for instance, support money for granting councils over money for CFREF, or to turn up the volume on criticism of the applied research drift.  It probably wouldn’t take more than 2 or 3 such motions at major universities to get Presidents scrambling to start a better internal dialogue about funding priorities.

That said, such exercises are hard to organize, and I kind of doubt anybody’s going to organize this in time to change the U-15 or Universities Canada pre-budget statements, which are already being drafted.  But I do think there is trouble ahead, and Senates are the likeliest forum for this to play out.  It could get ugly. Watch this space.

April 23

The State is not Entrepreneurial

If you’re interested in innovation policy, and haven’t spent time under a rock for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard of Mariana Mazzucato.  She’s the professor economics at the University of Sussex who wrote The Entrepreneurial State, which is rapidly becoming the source of an enormous number of errors as far as science and economic policy are concerned.

Mazzucato’s work got a fair bit of publicity when it was released for pointing out that a lot of private sector tech is an outgrowth of public sector-sponsored research.  She has a nice chapter, for instance, outlining how various components of the iPhone – the touchscreen, the GPS, the clickwheels, the batteries… hell, the internet itself – are based on research done by the US government.  This is absolutely bleeding obvious if you’re in science policy, but apparently people out there need to be reminded once in awhile, so Mazzucato found an audience.

Where Mazzucato goes wrong, however, is when she begins to draw inferences; for instance, she suggests that because the state funds “risky” research (i.e. research that no one else wold fund), it’s role in R&D is that of a “risk-taking” entity.  She also argues that since the state takes a leading position in the scientific development of some industries (e.g. biotech), it is therefore an “entrepreneurial” entity.  From this, Mazzucato concludes that the state deserves a share of whatever profits private companies make when they use technology developed with public science.

There are two problems here.  The first is that Mazzucato is rather foolishly conflating risk and uncertainty (risk is tangible and calculable, uncertainty is not).  Governments are not a risk-takers in any meaningful sense: they are not in any danger of folding if investments come to naught, because they can use taxing power (or in extremis, the ability to print money) to stay afloat.  What they do via funding of basic research is to reduce uncertainty: to shed light on areas that were previously unknowable.  Individual companies do very little of this, not just because it’s difficult and expensive (if a company is big enough, that’s not a problem – see Bell Labs or indeed some of the quite amazing stuff Google is doing these days), but because the spillover from such research might allow competitors to reap much of its value (a point Kenneth Arrow made over fifty years ago).

The second issue is that nearly all of the examples Mazzucato offers of public research leading to technological innovation and profit are American, and a fairly high percentage of these examples were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  To put it mildly, these examples are sui generis.  It’s not at all clear that what works in terms of government investment in the US, with its massive defense infrastructure, huge pools of venture capital, and deep wells of entrepreneurial talent, hold very many lessons for countries like Canada, which are not similarly endowed.  Yet Mazzucato more or less acts as if her recommendations are universal.

The book’s recommendations amount to: government should own a share of young innovative companies by gaining shares in return for use of publicly-funded knowledge.  But this is pretty tricky: first, there are very few cases where you can draw a straight line from a specific piece of publicly-funded IP to a specific product, and even where you can, there’s no guarantee that the piece of IP was publicly-funded by your local government (Canadian start-ups benefit from knowledge that has been created through public subsidies in many different countries, not just Canada).  And while there’s a case for greater government investment in emerging companies (economist Dani Rodrik makes it here for instance), the case is not in any way predicated on government investments in R&D.  In Canada, the CPP could adopt such a policy right now if it wanted – there’s no reason why it needs to be linked to anything Industry Canada is doing in science funding.  To the contrary, as Stian Westlake points out, countries that have been most successful in converting public science investments into private hi-tech businesses eschew the idea of equity in return for scientific subsidies.

Worst of all – though this is not entirely Mazzucato’s fault – her argument is being picked up and distorted by the usual suspects on the left.  These distortions are usually variations on: “Someone said the state is entrepreneurial?  That means the state must know how to run businesses!  Let’s get the state more involved in the direction of the economy/shaping how technology is used!”  This way disaster lies.

So, Mazzucato did everyone a service by forcefully reminding people about the importance of publicly-funded R&D to any innovation system.  But her policy prescriptions are much less impressive.  Treat with care.

May 06


So, there’s this cute little graphic making the rounds on the internet.  Take a look, and tell me what you see:



















If you laughed, I’m disappointed.  This joke, to me, represents absolutely everything wrong with the humanities these days.

The joke, essentially, is that scientists are narrow-minded eggheads.  They have knowledge, but not wisdom.  But your lovable humanities types?  Well, they may not know their ass from their elbow as far as recombinant DNA goes, but boy have they got wisdom.  Buckets full of wisdom, actually.  And as far as they are concerned, letting a 40-foot theropod loose in a modern laboratory is asking for trouble.  Scientists, on the other hand, are apparently too stupid to work this out on their own.

I mean, think about this for a moment: pretty much anyone with the intellectual maturity of an 8 year-old, and who has seen Jurassic Park, could understand the dangers of having a T-Rex wandering around (the reptilian ones, anyway – there are also dangers to having 70s glam-rock bands wandering around, but you need to be older to work that one out).  How arrogant do you have to be to assume that only humanities training can give you the necessary wisdom to work this out?

The thing is, scientists are actually really good at working out the ramifications of their discoveries on their own.  Take the 1975 Asilomar Conference, for instance.  When scientists gained the technical ability to start swapping DNA across species in the early 1970s, the entire biological profession took notice.  Concern about the implications of these techniques – whose effects at the time were largely unknown – persuaded the entire profession into a 16-month moratorium on its use.  The top people in the profession then came together at Asilomar to debate the issue, and come up with guidelines for ensuring the safe use of recombinant DNA techniques (summary available here).  And they did this, so far as I can tell, on their own, without help from superior, wisdom-stuffed humanities types.  Thus, the joke, at one level, stems from rank ignorance of how science works.

I get that humanities feel picked upon these days.  What I don’t get is why they react to this not by saying “humanities have their place”, but rather by exclaiming that “everyone without a humanities degree is a subtlety-free buffoon” (bonus points if you can wedge in something about humanities and citizenship, thus implying nobody else is as qualified to talk about politics).  It’s juvenile.  And it sure as hell doesn’t win the humanities many friends.

And yes, I know it’s supposed to be a joke.  But it’s a poor one, and reflects poorly on those who make it.

February 11

Cooling the “War on Science” Rhetoric

Today’s budget day.  I think we can be reasonably certain that no matter what comes up on the R&D front, somebody is going to trot out the meme that the Harper government is conducting a “War on Science”.  But this is, at best, a half-truth.  There is an enormous difference between the Harper government’s record of heeding scientific advice and its behaviour towards government scientists, on the one hand, and its record of funding academic science, on the other.

Their record on the former is indeed pretty terrible, particularly when it comes to protection of lakes, waterways, and groundwater.  The charge that they are putting developer interests above environmental interests is, near as I can tell, absolutely true.   The decreased ability of government scientists to communicate their results in scholarly forums is ridiculous.  But the paranoia around this stuff is getting out of hand – some of the rhetoric around the closure of libraries in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was pretty surreal.

(Apparently, plenty of people found photos of dumpsters full of books as prima facie evidence that jack-booted Tory ministers were personally eviscerating government library collections.  But regular book disposal is par for the course at any library.  Collections management strategies don’t just mean acquiring books, they mean getting rid of them when they are no longer necessary – in cases where similar collections are being merged, the proportion of volumes meeting that description can be quite high.  There is definite evidence of carelessness in the way collections are being disposed of, but anyone who thinks those decisions are made at the Ministerial level doesn’t understand Ottawa.)

Anyways, whatever their record on government science, the Tories’ record of funding academic science is something else entirely.  Some of the War-on-Science types like to add up all the tiny little cuts of the past year or two and present them as a sustained, coordinated attack on science. And there’s no doubt that some specific cases – the ones related to water, for instance (e.g. closure of the Experimental Lakes Area) – were probably linked to the government agenda.  But as for the rest of them: we’re coming back from a $50 billion deficit, and the government promised not to balance it on the backs of the provinces.  Cuts are to be expected, and it doesn’t seem as though Science is taking a disproportionate cut (though, thanks to Tory secretiveness about government operations, we can’t tell for sure).  Certainly, there has been nothing on the scale of the 14% cut the granting councils took in Paul Martin’s 1995 budget,  and nobody claimed there was a war on science back then.

In case you need a reminder going into today’s budget on the Tory funding record for Science, here it is:

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.17.29 PM























Could the Tories have done more?  Sure.  But that record simply isn’t one of a government “at war” with Science – which is presumably why people documenting the “War on Science” simply ignore it.

The only thing that worries me is that the numbers get smaller as time goes on.  Obviously, that has to do with the fact that the government entered a period of general restraint after 2010.  But I wonder: is it also the reaction of a government tired of getting kicked by a community to whom they have been relatively generous? Worth pondering.


August 13

Basic Research Turns 67

Here’s an interesting little nugget: “basic research,” like the atomic bomb, was born in July 1945.

The term did not exist until coined by Vannevar Bush for his work Science: the Endless Frontier, a roadmap for post-war American science policy commissioned by President Roosevelt. Prior to WWII, no distinction was made between “basic” and “applied” science; although some sciences were obviously more theoretical than others, it was widely recognized that science was always “applied,” at least to some degree. After all, what was the point if not to solve peoples’ problems?

Bush’s goal was to keep wartime-levels of funding flowing in the direction of university-based boffins, while at the same time eliminating the military’s role in approving and directing research projects. This was no mean feat; public investment in science in WWII was literally unprecedented, and had been justified entirely on national security grounds. Take away the military element and it was not entirely clear what the public-good argument was.

Bush supplied the rationale in two ways. First, Bush posited that “a nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill,” and even managed to extend this argument to suggest that Keynesian notions of full employment were in fact impossible without investments in science. Second, he argued that there was a sharp distinction between “basic” research (“performed without thought of practical ends”), the sole source of all new knowledge from which more “applied” research” (something to be left to business and the military) could be developed. This was less an empirical description than a rhetorical carve-out. If scientists were to be denied either their money or their independence, society’s sources of new knowledge (and hence its economic vitality) would inevitably dry up.

There is a fair amount of hooey in all this. Most of biomedicine and engineering, for instance, make virtually no sense if divorced from “practical ends.” Information spillovers and the growth of ICT means that economic leadership is substantially less dependent on leadership in basic knowledge production than was the case in 1945 (think Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance). Yet Bush’s report continues to exercise a remarkable hold on the way people think about science policy. We should applaud its success in keeping large amounts of research funding in the hands of scientists rather than the military, but we should perhaps be more critical of the amount of policy which continues to be based on a 67-year-old document which is long on rhetoric and short on empiricism.

November 29

Rankings Indigestion

The easiest knock on rankings like those produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is that they only measure research, and that universities are about much more than just research. That’s absolutely true, of course, but to my mind it also reflects a general unwillingness to come to grips with what an odd, hybrid of an organization higher education really is.

Go back two hundred years and universities were nearly irrelevant as institutions. The decline of the church had robbed the academy of much of its traditional purpose. Napoleon thought universities so useless that he closed them all and created a set of grandes écoles instead. Similarly, in Germany, universities at the start of the nineteenth century were seen as so useless in contributing to national priorities that they were completely remodeled along research lines by Alexander Humboldt.

The idea of a research mission is so ingrained in our understanding of a university that it’s hard to imagine them without it – but historically, it’s a fairly recent development. In the early 1800s, nearly all scientific research was done outside universities. The spread of the German model in the nineteenth century changed that a bit, but in many ways it was only the two World Wars of the twentieth century and the persuasive arguments of Vannevar Bush that really convinced governments to (a) spend on scientific research and (b) over time, concentrate that spending in universities. Nowadays, there’s very little discovery-oriented research that doesn’t occur in universities.

In other words, over the course of the last two centuries, as part of a long-term quest to become more relevant, the university (writ large) ate science.

That has consequences. Though teaching isn’t really much of a prestige activity, and teaching has almost exclusively a local impact and local role, science wants to be global. To use a neurological metaphor, individual scientists or labs are like neurons, and they are always seeking to send out dendrites to find and link up with other related neurons, with information passing between them to create positive feedback loops. One of the things that research rankings (and the bilbliometric studies on which they are based) do, at a very high level at least, is provide some indication to scientists as to where to send out their dendrites. In that sense, they are an essential tool in the globalization of science.

In sum: rankings are useful to science, but rankings irritate universities. Given that universities gorged themselves on science and reaped major benefits as a result, it’s not unreasonable to think of rankings as a form of indigestion after a very fine meal.

October 11

Two Memes About Science

The last few weeks have seen the emergence of two very interesting memes about science, both of which have the potential to radically re-shape higher education.

The first is from Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist famed for having invested early in Facebook. Yes, he often comes off as a self-promoting jerk, but a recent speech he made on the subject of the slowdown in the development of technology (and the associated National Review article) is very much worth reading. Riffing off Tyler Cowen’s recent e-book The Great Stagnation, Thiel argues that innovation is stalling, and that technology investments are no longer resulting in improvements in living standards. It’s more of a narrative argument than an empirical one, but it’s thought-provoking nonetheless.

The other big new meme comes from the Special Report in this week’s issue of the Economist. In it, Martin Giles makes the argument that technology is increasingly being driven not by research trickling down from universities and government laboratories but rather from individual firms working in consumer technology.

Ever since Vannevar Bush wrote Science: the Endless Frontier right after World War II, the idea that government investment in inquiry-driven, university-hosted science would drive the scientific progress that would ensure permanent economic prosperity has been the bedrock of higher education funding policy in America (and later, much of the OECD as well, including Canada). Thiel’s and Giles’s arguments both challenge this idea. Basically, they both posit that science à la Bush isn’t working – that development is no longer reliant on research (Giles) and that development isn’t delivering much anyway (Thiel).

If either of them are right – and it’s not a settled issue, obviously – some very profound questions arise. Most notably: why fund university research, or at least, why fund it to the degree and in the manner we presently do? It’s a question more and more people in Ottawa are asking anyway, given the relatively meager commercialization outputs of over a decade of unprecedented S & T spending through programs like the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Coincidentally, the Expert Panel reviewing federal R&D spending is expected to report next Monday. I hear that all has not been smooth among the panelists and that they may not be presenting a unanimous report.

Looks like science policy in Canada is about to get a whole lot more interesting.