The Business of Science

By Robinson, David | Winnipeg Free Press, December 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Business of Science


Robinson, David, Winnipeg Free Press


Investing in pure science returns bigger dividends

As official announcements go, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent unveiling of the government's science, technology and innovation strategy took a page right out of the communications-management playbook.

Stand in front of a nice backdrop, re-brand old policy as new, re-announce funding that had already been earmarked in the budget and make the announcement late on a Friday afternoon so any dissenting voices are shut out of the weekend news cycle.

It was classic politics, but poor public policy. Behind the political spin and the photo op, the event once again highlighted this government's dismal approach to science.

The "new" strategy is in fact a rehash of previous policy, rolled out in Harper's 2007 science and tech plan.

Seven years later, the overriding focus remains on targeting support for scientific research that first and foremost shows promise of generating new products for the marketplace. No change in direction, just more of the same, and certainly no evaluation of just how effective the government's strategy has been.

By all measures, the government's strategy has been a flop. The latest data from Statistics Canada show business research and development decreased by 17.7 per cent between 2006 and 2013. While businesses in OECD countries spend an average of 1.63 per cent of GDP on R&D, in Canada that figure is just 0.88 per cent, down from 1.11 per cent in 2006. Add to this the cuts in government funding for research, and the numbers speak for themselves: We need a new direction for science in this country.

At the heart of Canada's weak scientific performance over the past decade is the government's continuing failure to recognize the importance of investments in basic research. The government in fact has reduced funding for basic science, seemingly oblivious to the fact major scientific discoveries are most often curiosity-led, rather than goal-driven or market-led. Basic scientific research challenges accepted thinking, leading to fundamental paradigm shifts and unexpected innovations. From the discovery of X-rays and nylon, to superconductivity and medical imaging, history teaches us true scientific progress is driven by basic research without specific outcomes or applications in mind.

Unfortunately, this is another lesson the Conservative government continues to ignore. …

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