HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Sciences

August 29

Fundamental Choices on Fundamental Science

The federal government has been somewhat quiet on the subject of science funding since the release of the Fundamental Science Review (see previous blogs here here and here) back in April.  Within much of the scientific community, which for the most part fell head over heels in love with the Report, this has given cause for concern; personally, I think this is pretty much par for the course, and we aren’t likely to see much in the way of hints about the size of any possible investment until October or so.

The major good piece of news is that for the first time in a long time, economic growth is going way ahead of expectations and the likelihood is there’s going to be about $10 billion more in the fiscal framework than originally expected.  Now the likelihood is they’ll blow some of that on projects designed to keep Kathleen Wynne in power, some on daycare, and maybe a bit on deficit reduction just to show they haven’t totally forgotten their pledges around fiscal restraint, but there should be enough left in the till to put a decent amount of money towards science.

But the question is: will they?  And how fundamentally will they re-shape the system in the process?

To give you the research situation in a nutshell:  Apart from a brief blip in the 2016 budget, the overall granting council budget has been falling gently in real dollars since 2010.  The overall science budget has actually stayed steady or even increased, but a lot of that extra money is going to programs like the new Canada 150 Research Chairs, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, etc.  And within the granting council budgets, and increasing amount of money has been diverted away from fundamental research.  Some of it has gone to more graduate scholarships, but there has also been an increasing focus on making research more focussed on end-use, creating partnerships with industry (which has a similar effect), etc.  Add to the fact that some granting councils (notably CIHR, whose management decisions over the last decade appear to be the result of sustained cane toad licking) have started substantially reducing the number of awards they give out each year in order to increase the average size of their awards.

This has varied outcomes from a political point of view.  A large number of individual researchers in basic sciences, particularly biology and medicine, are livid.  A smaller number of researchers with more strength in translational and applied research are doing just fine, thank you very much.  And the universities, who are still by and larger getting the money they want, recognize that many of their employees are unhappy campers; however, since they continue to receive money either way, the status quo isn’t intolerable even if it isn’t ideal.

Now, into this steps David Naylor and his fellow commissioners with a report on how to fix it.  They ask for a whole lot of money: $1.3 billion in funding for fundamental research phased in over four years.   But – and here’s the tricky bit – how to pay for it?  Do you ask for completely 100% new money?  Because that’s a lot.  It’s something like a 30% increase, which not many programs get these days.  Or do you say: hey, let’s undo all those bad decisions of the past decade and dismantle CFREF, the Excellence Chairs and whatnot, rejig the council funding so less of their money goes to translational research, etc. (Nassif Ghoussoub outlines one possible approach along these lines here). Basically, spend the money we have better before asking for more dollars.

If it were me, I’d take option two.  But that would create winners and losers and governments hate that even if the winners in this case would be very loud and happy.  So Naylor and co. went with option one: ask for all money to be new.  Well, they actually did kind of say all that other money (CFREF, CERCs) was bunk because there were a lot of “this program should be reviewed but it’s out of our scope” comments (not sure it was actually, but leave that aside) but they very specifically avoided saying “lets repurpose some money.“  It’s a higher risk strategy, I think, because you need to ask for a larger sum of money, but on the plus side: no losers.

What will the outcome be?  If I had to guess, it’s that Naylor will mostly get his wish on funding because, fortuitously, money is available and they can probably get by without much re-purposing. But if that hadn’t been the case (and still may not be – still plenty of time for a Black Swan even between now and budget day), who knows what would have happened?  Because just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, you know there is literally no one in Ottawa willing to brief the politicians on the re-purposing option.

Which is too bad, because even with all the research money in the world, it’s still important to spend it properly.

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.

January 25

The Science Policy Review

So, any day now, the report of the Government of Canada’s Science Policy review should be appearing.  What is that, you ask?  Good question.

“Science policy” is one of those tricky terms.  Sometimes it can mean science as a way of making policy (like when someone claims they want all policy to be “evidence-based); sometimes it’s about policy for or about Science, and the rules and regulations under which it is funded.  This particular Science policy review, chaired by former U of T President David Naylor is a bit narrower; as the mandate letter and key questions show, this review is fundamentally about funding.   In fact, three sets of questions about funding: funding of fundamental research, funding of facilities/equipment, and funding of “platform technologies” (which is irritating innovation policy jargon which makes a lot more senses in IT than in the rest of science, but whatever).

For the first two sets of questions, there’s a heavy tilt towards fitness of purpose of existing funding agencies.  The review’s emphasis is not so much “are we spending enough money” (that’s a political decision) but rather “does the way we spend money make sense”.  For example, one might well ask “does a country of 35 million people and fewer than 100 universities actually need three granting councils, plus CFI, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, Brain Canada, Genome Canada, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund… you get the idea.

There was a frisson of excitement last year when the UK decided to fold all their granting councils into One Big Council – might our Science Review recommend something similar?  Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that fewer councils means lest paperwork and more coherence (the reasons usually given in favour of rationalization), because policies and agendas can survive institutional mergers.  And as a colleague of mine who used to be quite high up in a central agency once said to me: the reason all these agencies proliferated in the first place was that politicians got frustrated with the traditional granting councils and wanted something more responsive.  Paring them back doesn’t necessarily solve the problem – it just re-sets the clock until the next time politicians get itchy.

This itchiness could happen sooner than you think.  Even as the government has been asking Naylor and his expert panel to come up with a more rational scheme of science management A couple of weeks ago it emerged that one of the ideas the Liberals had decided to test in their regular pre-budget focus group work was the idea of spending mega-millions (billions?) on a scientific “Moonshot”: that is, a huge focused effort on one goal or technology such as  – and I quote – driverless cars, unmanned aircraft, or “a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space designed to help people connect to the internet in remote areas or in a crisis situation”.  Seriously.  If any of you thought supporting big science projects over broad-based basic science was a Tory thing, I’m afraid you were sorely mistaken.

Anyways, back to the review.  There’s probably room for the review to provide greater coherence on “big science” and science infrastructure – Nassif Ghoussoub of UBC has provided some useful suggestions here.  There may be some room for reduction in the number of granting agencies (though – bureaucratic turf protection ahoy!) and definitely room to get the councils – especially CIHR – to back off on the idea that every piece of funded research needs to have an end-use in mind (I’d be truly shocked if Naylor didn’t beat the crap out of that particular drum in his final report).

But the problem is that the real challenges in Canadian Science are much more intractable.  Universities hired a lot of new staff in the last fifteen years, both in order to improve their research output and to deal with all those new undergraduates we’ve been letting in.  This leads to more competition.  Meanwhile, government funding has declined somewhat since 2008 – even after that nice little unexpected boost the feds gave the councils last budget.  At the same time, granting councils – most of all CIHR – have been increasing the average size of awards.  Which is great if you can get a grant; the problem is that with stagnant budgets the absolute number of grants is falling.  So what do rational individual researchers do with more competition for fewer awards?  They submit more applications to increase their chances of getting an award.  Except that this drives down acceptance rates still further – on current trends, we’ll be below 10% before too long.

Again, this isn’t just a Canadian phenomenon – we’re seeing similar results in a number of countries.  The only solution (bar more funding, which isn’t really in the Review’s remit) is to give out a larger number of smaller awards.  But this runs directly contrary to the prevailing political wind, which seems to be about making fewer, bigger awards: Canada Excellence Research Chairs (there’s rumours of a new round!), CFREF, Moonshots, whatever.  You can make a case for all those programs but the question is one of opportunity costs.  CFREF might be brilliant at focusing institutional resources on a particular problem and acting as anchors for new tech/business clusters: but is it a better use of money than seeding money widely to researchers through the usual peer-review mechanism?  (for the record, I think CFREF makes infinitely more sense than CERCs or Moonshots, but am a bit more agnostic on CFERF vs. granting councils).

Or, to be more brutal: should we have moonshots and CFREF and a 10% acceptance rate on council competitions, or no moonshots or CFREF and a 20% acceptance rate?  We’ve avoided public discussion on these kinds of trade-offs for too long.  Hopefully, Naylor’s review will bring us the more pointed debate this topic needs.

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.

October 07

Party Platform Analysis: Science and Innovation

In the platform analyses I’ve done so far (for the Greens, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Liberals), I’ve focused mostly on the stuff around student finance.  But in doing so, I’ve left out certain platform elements on science and innovation, specifically from the Liberals and the New Democrats.

There are some pretty broad similarities between the two parties’ programs, even though they package them somewhat differently.  Both are long on promises about process.  The Liberals will appoint a Chief Science Officer; the NDP will go one better, and appoint an Office of the Parliamentary Science Officer AND create a Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.  Both promise to “unmuzzle” scientists; both promise to bring back the long-form census (which I personally find irritating – shouldn’t we at least try to move into 21st century with an administrative register?).  Both promise to make government data “open”; additionally, the Liberals promise to ensure their policies are “evidence-based”.  The word “independence” shows up a lot: Liberals want to give it to Statscan, without actually specifying what the word means; the NDP want to restore it to the granting agencies, without specifying what the word means.  They also want to re-establish scientific capacity in government, but apparently aren’t allocating any money for it, so you know, take that with a grain of salt.

The differences, such as they are, are about where to spend the lucre.  The Liberals have set aside an extra $600 million over three years for an “Innovation Agenda”, which will “significantly expand support to incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support”.  This, apparently, is meant to “create successful networks like the German and American partnerships between business government and university/college research”.

Genuinely, I have no idea what they are talking about.  Which German and American programs?  The Fraunhofer institute?  The Tories already did that when they converted NRC to an applied research shop.  As near as I can tell, this seems to be innovation-speak for “let’s give money to middle-men between academia and business”.  Which is not promising.  I mean, even assuming that early-stage commercialization is the real bottleneck in our innovation system (and where’s the evidence for that, evidence-based policy guys?), why is this the right way to go about fixing it?  Weren’t the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research supposed to do the same thing, albeit from another angle?  Shouldn’t we – you know, wait for some evidence about what works and what doesn’t?

The Liberals also are promising another $100 million over three years to the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which would normally make me want to tear my eyes out, but apparently it’s all going into something that is meant to mimic the US Small Business Innovation and Research Program, which does tend to get high marks.  But, significantly, there is not an extra cent for educational institutions, and not an extra cent for the granting councils.

The New Democrats, on the other hand, are talking much smaller sums: $105 million over four years to “support researchers in post-secondary institutions”.  A helpful NDP staffer has clarified for me that this actually means money to the granting councils, which would make the NDP the only party to commit to more council funding.  That said, unless inflation dips below 1% (unlikely, but not impossible), that amount is not enough to cover inflation.

So, take your pick here.  On non-financial aspects of their policies, the two parties are essentially singing off the same sheet.  Financially, the Liberals have more money on the table, but none of it appears to be heading to institutions.  The NDP has a much smaller package, which will benefit researchers via the granting councils, but not by a whole lot.

Back next Friday with a final summary of the election and higher education.

October 06

Party Platform Analysis: The Liberals

Two quick things at the outset.  First, this will only look at the Liberal’s Monday announcement on student financing.  Tomorrow, I’ll look at their science/innovation policy in conjunction with that of the NDP, which apparently released a similar platform in conditions of complete secrecy last week.  Second, in the interest of full disclosure: I was asked by the Liberals to comment on a draft of their platform a few weeks ago.  I did so, as I would have for any party had they asked.  Judging by what I see in their platform, they took at least some of my comments into account.  So bear that in mind when reading this analysis.

The main plank of the Liberal announcement is that they are planning to increase grants for low income students by $750 million, rising to $900 million by the end of the mandate (which more than doubles the total amount; however,it’s not clear if this increase includes alternative compensation to Quebec… if it does not, add another $200 million).  The Canada Student Grant for Students from Low-Income Families (CSG-LI) will rise in value from $2,000/year to $3,000/year, and the Canada Student Grant for Students from Middle-Income Families (CSG-MI) will rise in value from $800 to $1,800.  The thresholds for both will be increased, meaning more students will receive the low-income grant, and more students with incomes in the $80-100K family income range (precise values not set, but this looks like about what they are going to do) will receive the middle-income grant.  In addition, the Liberals propose raising the repayment threshold (i.e. the level below which borrowers in repayment are not required to make payments on their loans) from just over $20,000 to $25,000.  It’s unclear what this would cost (take-up rate is uncertain), but a good bet would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

So, a $1 billion promise.  Except the Liberals are promising that this will all cost the taxpayer… nothing.  And the reason for that is that the Liberals have decided they will axe the education amount and textbook tax credits (something I, and, others have been suggesting for many years – for instance here).  Now, I actually don’t think this will quite cover the entire spending bill, but it will be within $100 million, or so (basically, it will cover the grants, but not the loan threshold change).

However, what this means is that the plan creates winners and losers.  The value of those federal tax credits for full-time students is $558/year (for part-time students it is $168).  Everybody will lose that amount.  For those who currently receive the CSG-LI, and those who receive CSG-MI and remain in the CSG-MI bracket after the thresholds move, the extra $1,000/year the Liberals are offering means they will be better off by $442 (but they will also benefit by getting the entirety of their $1,000 sooner in the form of grants, rather than delayed in the form of tax relief).  For those in the CSG-MI moving into the CSG-LI category, the net benefit will be $1,642.  For those who currently do not receive grants, but will now become eligible for CSG-MI, the net benefit will be $1,242.

So there are winners.  But there are losers, too.  Families with incomes over $100,000 (or so) will simply be out that $558.  And part-time students, who are ineligible to receive CSGs, will also be out $168.  But this is what happens when you try to do big policy without spending (many) additional dollars.  And there’s always the risk that they will come under political fire for “raising taxes”, which is arguably what cutting tax credits amounts to.

So, full marks for creativity here: these policies would make the funding system somewhat more progressive (in a slightly quirky way).  And full marks for putting out a backgrounder that makes it clear that these moves will create costs for provinces (their co-operation will be needed in order to raise the loan threshold) that need to be mitigated, even though the Liberals are vague on how this will actually work.

But it should be noted that by their own claim (which, as I said above, is probably not quite true), Liberals are choosing not to invest another dime in the sector, which puts them last among political parties in new spending commitments.  As pleasing as the re-arrangement of inefficient subsidies is, wouldn’t it have been better if they had added some funds on top of it?

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

Dinosaurs

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

image001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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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.

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