Budget 2012 continues to shift Canadian federal investment away from basic research toward industrial applied research. This shift is politically expedient: the redirection of funds can be discussed with tantalizing justifications based on job creation, targeted investment, streamlining discovery, and so forth. The shift resonates with a public concerned about frivolous expenditures of dollars collected through taxation. The late Senator from Wisconsin, William Proxmire, advanced this line of political rhetoric by issuing Golden Fleece Awards for science projects he lampooned as unworthy of government investment. Why should the government waste taxpayer money so that scientists can pursue their curiosity? Although slightly slanted with the operative verb “waste”, this is an entirely reasonable question which the scientific community must strive to answer.
Why should the government invest in basic research?
This question was eloquently answered by Vannevar Bush in his report Science: The Endless Frontier to President Roosevelt from July 1945. After my reading of the 2012 Budget, I thought it timely to share some relevant extractions (all emphasis added):
Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science. (p. 16) The simplest and most effective way in which the Government can strengthen industrial research is to support basic research and to develop scientific talent. (p. 17) One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance. Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind. Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy. (p. 15) Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected. (p. 15)
Industrial incentive systems are misaligned with basic research
Basic research is the soil from which “innovation” and “commercialization” grow. Where should these foundational studies take place? Should they be carried out by industry or by some cleverly designed industrial-academic partnership? The answers according to Vannevar Bush are illuminating. The incentive systems for industry are rarely aligned with basic research. (A notable exception was Bell Labs, where scientists free to explore basic research produced stunning advances.)
Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory. There are some notable exceptions, it is true, but even in such cases it is rarely possible to match the universities in respect to the freedom which is so important to scientific discovery. (p. 16) …Research is the exploration of the unknown and is necessarily speculative. It is inhibited by conventional approaches, traditions, and standards. It cannot be satisfactorily conducted in an atmosphere where it is gauged and tested by operating or production standards. Basic scientific research should not, therefore, be placed under an operating agency whose paramount concern is anything other than research. Research will always suffer when put in competition with operations. (p. 26) The benefits of basic research do not reach all industries equally or at the same speed. Some small enterprises never receive any of the benefits. (p. 17)
Budget 2012 and the prior decade of mission drift
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the federal investment in science. The new system aims to industrialize the research activities of university and government scientists. Commercialization, innovation, job creation, whatever you want to call it, is a preconceived goal which constrains the freedom necessary for the unanticipated, the disruptive breakthroughs brought by basic research advances. Despite the recent assurances by Ministers Flaherty and Goodyear that “blue sky” research will continue to receive federal investment, there has been a steady shift toward a system with explicit commercialization incentives instead of one with the freedom open to transformational discovery.
The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere. (p. 10) The history of medical science teaches clearly the supreme importance of affording the prepared mind complete freedom for the exercise of initiative. It is the special province of the medical schools and universities to foster medical research in this way - a duty which cannot be shifted to government agencies, industrial organizations, or to any other institutions. (p. 13)
Canada's Research Policy is Misaligned with Scientist's Incentives
The intense desire to deeply understand is the incentive for scientists, especially young scientists, to carry out research. Newton did not have to anticipate the industrialization of space to justify his study of gravity. Darwin did not have to anticipate applications of his studies in the pharmaceutical industry. Einstein did not have to forecast the Global Positioning System to justify investment in the theory of relativity. Canadian scientists aren’t free to pursue their breakthroughs. Instead, we are expected to cultivate relationships with industrial partners through government funded “first dates” and plan commercialization of our ideas in advance of their discovery. Instead of the freedom to pursue the curiosity that emerged from tens of thousands of hours of study, NRC scientists have been promoted and can now play the role of “business concierge”.
Where will these new products come from? How will we find ways to make better products at lower cost? The answer is clear. There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise. There must be plenty of men and women trained in science and technology for upon them depend both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. (p. 15) To serve effectively as the centers of basic research these institutions must be strong and healthy. They must attract our best scientists as teachers and investigators. They must offer research opportunities and sufficient compensation to enable them to compete with industry and government for the cream of scientific talent. (p. 16)
The federal government’s research incentive system is no longer aligned with the intrinsic motivations of scientists.