HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Pure vs. Applied Science and an Easy Win for the Liberals

OK, y’all probably know that I’m not particularly a fan of the terms “pure” and “applied” science (outside of physics and cosmology, most science is applied, to some extent), with “pure” science being a post-World War II political construct. Long-time readers will also know that I am generally unimpressed with the whole “any move away from ‘pure’ science is a step towards barbarism” cant: major science powers can and do spend a heck of a lot of money on applied research (Fraunhofer institute, anyone?).  But that doesn’t mean something isn’t seriously out of whack in Canadian science.

For arguments’ sake, let’s say there are two buckets, one called “100% pure science” and one called “100% applied science”.  What’s the right amount of money for a government to put into each of them?  No one knows.  The answer presumably differs somewhat by country, and is based on the nature of other elements in the innovation ecosystem: business, venture capital, supply chains, etc.  But in Canada, at the granting council level at least, the “pure science” bucket is and always has been way, way, way larger than the applied bucket.

What’s gone wrong with Canadian Science is not that we’ve been taking money out of the pure bucket and putting it into the applied bucket – I know that’s more or less the media narrative on this, but it doesn’t actually describe what’s happened.  No, the issue is that little by little, the entire pure research bucket is getting dragged towards the applied bucket.  Every time the government demands a business co-funder, every time they ask for more “real-world applications” of a potential project, they pollute the pure science bucket.  The 100% applied bucket did get marginally bigger during the Harper years.  But of far more importance is that the 100% pure bucket gradually became an 80% pure bucket, and then a 70% pure bucket, etc., etc.

(I suppose we could argue percentages here, but that’s not really the point – you get the idea.)

To be fair, the start of this shift actually pre-dates the Tories; certainly some of this was underway by the time Chretien left office.   But virtually all reasonable observers now think this shift has gone too far.  Yes, doing “translational” research is important, but moving to the point where the translational aspect of research is the centre, and the basic research just an add-on – as CIHR recently did – is simply ass-backwards.

So here’s a simple thing the Liberals can do to win massive acclaim, without spending an extra dime: call the granting councils in, and tell them to unbundle their pure and applied research efforts.  You could probably even cut a little bit off the “pure” budget and throw it into the “applied” bucket – so long as the “pure” budget gets dragged from the 70% mark back towards the 100% mark.

(Again, we could argue percentages, but life’s too short.)

The point is, there isn’t a scientist in the country that thinks putting everything in a hybrid pure/applied system has worked.  It can be changed for the better, at no cost.  This should make it a no-brainer for the new government – provided the higher education community can get its act together to advocate loudly, consistently, and quickly.

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One Response to Pure vs. Applied Science and an Easy Win for the Liberals

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