Business Earmarks or Merit Competition: Which is the Better Federal Research Strategy?

Investments by governments to support research and development are crucial to economic prosperity, job creation, scientific advancement, and improvements to the future to be inherited by children. How should these investments be selected?

  • Merit review is a competitive process leveraging the expertise of a specially qualified panel to direct investments in research and development.
  • Earmarks are appropriations given to specific recipients or targeted areas, without competition, to satisfy the intent of government.

When viewed over the time scale on which benefits of research occur (decades), the merit review process is the better strategy. When viewed over the time scale of election cycles (years), governments often consider earmarks to be the better strategy. Visionary governments who followed the advice of scientists like Francis Bacon and Vannevar Bush built research systems that spawned the industrial revolution, the space and electronics industries, the internet, …. Canadian governments of the past who listened to John Charles Fields and Maurice Lamontaigne launched Canadian industries through the NRC and NSERC.

“The wealth of a nation once depended on its natural resources or the sheer size of its land, or its potential labour force; but now it is coming to depend more on its reservoirs of knowledge and its ability to organize and utilize them than on the older criteria.” –A Science Policy for Canada, Lamontagne Report, v. 3, (1976)

(Concerning the allocation of research funds) “It is folly to use as one’s guide in the selection of fundamental science the criterion of utility. Not because (scientists)… despise utility. But because. .. useful outcomes are best identified after the making of discoveries, rather than before.” — John Polanyi, Speech to the Canadian Society for the Weizmann Institute of Science, Toronto (1996-06-02)

“Faced with the admitted difficulty of managing the creative process, we are doubling our efforts to do so. Is this because science has failed to deliver, having given us nothing more than nuclear power, penicillin, space travel, genetic engineering, transistors, and superconductors? Or is it because governments everywhere regard as a reproach activities they cannot advantageously control? They felt that way about the marketplace for goods, but trillions of wasted dollars later, they have come to recognize the efficiency of this self-regulating system. Not so, however, with the marketplace for ideas.” — John Polanyi, Quoted in Martin Moskovits (ed.), Science and Society, the John C. Polanyi Nobel Lareates Lectures (1995)

Instead of listening to today’s voice along this lineage, John Polanyi, Canada’s current federal1 government listens to Dean Roger Martin.

“What makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology. It is businesses producing high paying jobs by having unique products and processes that a customer needs.” — Roger Martin, Canada will shrivel under business-school neglect, dean says , The Globe and Mail (2011-03-16)
Canada, like Texas, doesn’t shrivel.

The report of the expert panel, the “Jenkins Report”, advising the government on the effectiveness of federal support of business research and development recommended2 the creation of a new Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) and separately recommended3 that the NRC be ramified “into a constellation” of new R&D centres, a natural progression following the birth of the Tri-council. Rather than constellating the NRC, Budget 2012 does the opposite with plans for the role of the proposed IRIC to be carried out by a more centralized, business-focused, NRC:

…the Government will consider ways to better focus the National Research Council on demand-driven research, consistent with the recommendations of the Expert Panel. - Budget 2012
The policy implementations of Budget 2012 for CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC will be announced today in a meeting to Vice Presidents [Research] of Canadian universities. Drifting along a decade-long trend, a transfer of funds away from research investment programs distributed through competitive merit review toward new programs aimed at business recipients without competitive review is anticipated. Canadian business innovation gaps will not be solved by cutting funds supporting academic research and education activities.

The wisest investment strategy of federal dollars should rest upon systems involving the best expertise and considerations of the disruptive impact of basic research.


  1. The current government of Ontario is similar: after earmarking \$50M to the Perimeter Institute in 2011, \$42M was cut out of research in 2012.
  2. "Recommendation 1: Create an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC), with a clear business innovation mandate (including delivery of business-facing innovation programs, development of a business innovation talent strategy, and other duties over time), and enhance the impact of programs through consolidation and improved whole-of-government evaluation."
  3. "Recommendation 4: Transform the institutes of the National Research Council (NRC) into a constellation of large-scale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces, while transferring NRC public policy-related research activity to the appropriate federal agencies."