The post-Naylor Report effort to get big new investments in fundamental science is in trouble. Bluntly, the Finance Department appears not to be buying the argument that fundamental research is, in fact, a good investment. I’m not 100% surprised: the Naylor mostly tended to assume the wider benefits of research to economic growth rather than demonstrate or prove it, and the big U-15 institutions have banked everything on a rhetorical strategy of: money for research à a miracle occurs à innovation and growth! A strategy as wrong-headed as it is cynical, frankly. And it’s not convincing anyone, as I suggested it might not back here.
Some people are claiming betrayal from the Liberals. “But they said Science was back!” goes the refrain. This is to misunderstand the Liberals interest in the file. Go back to their 2015 manifesto: they promised not a single cent for the granting councils; their rhetoric about science being back was always focussed on unshackling scientists working in the public service, not providing more dollars to academic science. Nor was the Fundamental Science review ever meant to provide a road-map to a richer future. If you read the mandate letter, the review was clearly meant to be about the balance between fundamental and applied science. The fact that Naylor and co. came back refusing to advocate cutting any applied dollars but instead just suggesting stonking increases in fundamental science funding was an unwelcome surprise to many in government, and explains why they maneuvered hard to keep the report buried through the Winter 2017 budget cycle. It’s fair to accuse the Liberals of not being very good on the science funding file, but there’s been no change of heart – apart from a small fit of out-of-the-blue generosity in the 2016 budget, they’ve never been very good on it.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we’d all be better off if we stopped pushing the “fundamental research = innovation” angle and started pushing a “fundamental research = talent” angle. And by “talent” I do not mean “the next generation of researchers”, which is the way the Naylor report deals with this question. This is a weak framing because it frames the importance of science in terms of producing more scientists. No, what I mean is “fundamental research = the next generation of knowledge workers”.
At the end of the day, what government sees in science is its economic and social impacts. Any ask has to be phrased to meet that need. The link between actual discoveries and use of technologies, in a country which is 2% of world economy and 3% of world science, is always going to be tiny. In the main, we use technologies developed elsewhere and that’s always going to be the case – which is why so much of the research -> innovation -> growth line falls flat. We’re pretty much always going to be a part of value chains which for the most part exist outside our borders. The issue is how to be a better and more profitable part of the value chain. And the answer to that is have better scientific and technical talent available to industry.
In the words of some fairly irritating Swedish business gurus, talent makes capital dance. If we’ve got the best scientific and tech talent, investment and jobs will follow. Some of that money is going to be domestic, but obviously a lot of it is going to be foreign (like Amazon, for instance). That might irritate types like the Innovation minister who seems desperate to be remembered for his role in creating national champions. But in the real world, the big plays are going to come from talent attracting the big foreign dollars. And more money for fundamental research can play a big part in training that talent, because Lord knows basic research is cheaper than applied research. Framed that way, a research = talent agenda has a much better chance of being accepted.
But. (There is always a but.) Two caveats to this.
First, this is about better graduate students and young researchers, not more graduate students and young researchers. We have a bad habit in Canada where every time we think we’re missing something, we think “more” is the answer. It’s not. This is a quality over quantity situation.
Second, which is a corollary to the first, if the call for more money is fundamentally about graduate students and future highly-qualified personnel, it follows that this can’t just be about more money. For maximum effectiveness, this boost in funding needs to be accompanied by real reform of graduate studies. Everything MITACS has been teaching us over the last few years? It needs to get woven into the fabric of every last graduate program in the country. PhDs, by and large, do not end up working in academia. At some point, we should reform these programs to reflect that.
More money for the purpose of pure science? For government, that’s a meh. More money for the development of world-class talent, on the other hand, is a winner. The way to do both at the same time is to create a science system with graduate students at its core.
But to convince government, universities would have to credibly pay more than lip service to this concept. Whether they are up for it is an open question.