Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Right Way to Argue for Basic Research

The week before last, you may recall, I took issue with the way the country’s illustrious top university presidents (Gerforno, for short) were trying to sell higher education.  Effectively, what they were doing was selling higher education’s research mission by claiming “look, basic research creates jobs” on the basis of a few anecdotes.

The feedback I got was mostly “we really like the portmanteau Gerforno but are not necessarily convinced that there’s any other way to argue for basic research – if all the government wants to hear about is jobs, growth and middle-class families, isn’t that they way Presidents have to sell it?”  And there’s something to this view.  I used to work at Universities Canada; I get their lobbying strategy, and yes, this is exactly what the Presidents are thinking.

My objection is effectively two-fold.  Part of it is that there is too much intellectual dishonesty involved.  While there is a lot of research that ties a country’s overall research spend to long-term GDP growth rates or productivity rates, there is very little to substantiate a link between publicly-funded research or basic research with same.  That’s not to say the link doesn’t exist, just that the research doesn’t exist to prove it.  And second of all, there’s frankly a risk that coming to government year after year and saying “research means higher productivity means more jobs wears thin after awhile.  I mean, it’s been 20 years since the feds created the Canada Foundation for Innovation and really started spending money on research and as far as I know no one’s suggesting that all that money has in fact moved the needle on productivity very much.  Now, if we re-ran the last twenty years to answer the counter-factual “and what would productivity and growth look like if we hadn’t spent all that money” we might find it has in fact been worth it, but it’s easy to understand why politicians and civil servants might be skeptical about this claim.

So now many of you are now thinking “ok smart guy, how would you argue for it”?  Fair challenge.  Here’s my take:

I agree that there needs to be a way to link research to the idea of prosperity, but I think it has to be done in a way which is at once both much more specific and much more general than the way we are doing it now.  More specific in the sense that we have to stop arguing that research on its own is going to deliver growth because that’s a completely nonsensical proposition.  Investment in research is a necessary but insufficient condition.  To credibly link research to the economic engine, the research agenda needs to be tied to a whole bunch of other agendas: a competition agenda, a tax agenda, a regulation agenda, etc.  And the higher education agenda needs to make allies among people in other sectors who can help broaden this agenda.

At the same time, research advocates need to be less specific in the sense that we need to stop claiming that investment in this or that particular new shiny thing is going to lead to breakthroughs/growth/prosperity.  Every time higher ed leaders try to make the research-growth link, they reach for a small handful of specific examples in the life sciences or ICT.  Now maybe those leaders do actually know better and are just cynically pandering to politicians who have a narrow idea of what productivity growth actually is (“It’s new! It’s shiny!  Therefore it must be making Canada more productive!”).  The problem is that even though higher ed leaders are making these arguments in favour of “research” broadly defined, what politicians and policymakers tend to hear is “hey, we should double down on life sciences and ICT”.  Which is pretty much the opposite of what most of the research community wants.

So here’s my pitch: what we want and need is a Smart Canada.  We have no idea what the next big thing is going to be, nor does anyone else.  But our best bet to get ahead of the game is to be at or near the technological frontier in as many fields as possible.  And that means two things: first, it means adopting a very forward-looking posture on digital infrastructure and policy.  I don’t want to bore you with details, but we should be looking to imitate places like Estonia, South Korea and Singapore, and remembering that investing in digital infrastructure & digital public services > investing in digital companies.

Second, it means investing more in supporting and attracting talent.  And by talent I mean primarily people who can expand our country’s capacity in both research and development.  On the development side – that is, mostly in the private sector – that means a whole raft of changes to immigration (Dominic Barton made a number of helpful suggestions in this regard last year).  On the research side – mostly in academia – it means ensuring that we are creating an eco-system that can sustain basic research.  By and large, this means a greater emphasis on i) funding ideas and researchers rather than building infrastructure and ii) spreading the money around more widely than is currently the fashion.

(and yeah, there’s still an issue about ensuring ideas from basic research actually  do find their way into the economy eventually – that problem doesn’t go away.  But it’s kind of a last-mile problem, one you fix after the other pieces are in place).

Basically: support digital, support talent, support researchers and avoid confusing innovation policy with regional development or industrial strategies.  We can’t know for sure how to profit from tomorrow’s technologies, but this is a sure way for us to be as close as possible to the front of the line on new technology.  Think of it as an insurance policy, or if you’ll forgive a particularly ugly phrase, a way of “future-proofing” the country.

I admit it’s not quite as simple an equation as the Shiny Things = Growth algorithm which seems to have entranced the federal innovation ministry and in the short run it may be a tough sell.  But it’s a more durable and ultimately inclusive formula for linking growth and research.  We should give something like it a try.

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3 Responses to The Right Way to Argue for Basic Research

  1. Jim Woodgett says:

    1. You are right about the Gerforno arguments getting old and in need of a new approach.
    2. You are right about research being a way to maintain competitiveness (skin in the game) in a global, continuously moving market.
    3. You are right about immigration and attraction.
    4. You are right about the inherent fallacy of promising something that research, by it’s nature, cannot predict.
    5. You are right about it being more complicated, but it is more honest.
    6. You are wrong to think that there is a likelihood this more nuanced approach will be given a try. Although I do note the Council of Academic Hospitals of Ontario has the phrase “Healthier, wealthier, smarter” and that resonates far better than “Stem Cells FTW!”.

    You’d expect the higher ed/research sector to have developed more sophisticated pitches over the years. Just because sound bites are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they are mandatory. Research is a complicated ecosystem with ephemeral promises but a brilliant track record. But most people understand that our world is complex and they conceive dreams of better futures. Let’s give them credit rather than tired anecdotes.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hey, if i thought there was a hope in hell they’d actually adopt this, why would I as a consultant give it away for free in a blog? 😉

      I just try to nudge the conversation along for the long term.

  2. Graeme Moffat says:

    Great piece, two thoughts:

    1. I think everyone missed something significant in the “innovation supercluster” announcements: ISED and the federal government do not believe that Canada has the potential to turn life science research into commercial success at any scale in the foreseeable future. If they did believe in this industry, at least one finalist from among the several fairly strong healthtech/medtech/biotech bids would have advanced to the second round. (Few Canadian health tech companies of significance were not part of a supercluster bid.)

    This has pretty big implications for the ‘Gerforno’ arguments: the same people who fund NSERC and CIHR just looked across the entire spectrum of groups of companies operating in the Canadian healthtech sector – after decades of funding accelerators and university life science, health and medicine commercialization initiatives – and went “…nah.”

    I leave it to proponents of the ‘Gerforno’ appeal to determine the implications of that.

    2) Your remark: “(and yeah, there’s still an issue about ensuring ideas from basic research actually do find their way into the economy eventually – that problem doesn’t go away. But it’s kind of a last-mile problem, one you fix after the other pieces are in place).”

    That’s kind of the crux of the productivity problem. In most endeavours, the last mile is considered the hardest part. Maybe a bit of an oversimplification.

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