Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Who needs science? Not the Harper government!

| May 13, 2013
Who needs science? Not the Harper government!

The 19th century British schoolteacher, social reformer and mathematician George Boole was not what you would call a 'market-oriented' kind of guy.

His life and work had little connection to the worlds of business and entrepreneurship, and the profit motive was almost entirely alien to his central preoccupations.

And yet, nearly 160 years after his death, Boole is viewed as one of the fathers of computer science -- the scientific foundation of the hugely profitable, multi-trillion dollar business of digital electronics.

Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry, IBM, Intel -- they all owe their existence to an obscure mathematician who died in 1864.

You can't get more market-oriented than that.

Boole's scientific interest was in the highly rarified fields of symbolic logic and pure mathematics.

His most important work had the distinctly impractical and non-marketable title of: "An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities."

Nobody in her/his right mind could imagine one might make money from that sort of head-in-the-clouds stuff.

But folks are making money from Boole's work -- barrels of it!

Wall Street wouldn't have 'derivatives' without calculus

Boole himself had no thought of 'commercializing' his work. Like so many pioneering scientific researchers his main motivation was curiosity as to how the universe works.

Gregor Mendel's 'discovery' of genetic traits and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection through mutation both made possible hugely profitable enterprises in pharmaceuticals, bio-engineering, agriculture and other industries.

The two were 'pure' scientists, however, not connected to business or industry.

The same could be said of Descartes, who invented the system of geometry that uses the ‘coordinates’ named after him, which is crucially important to engineering; and Leibniz and Newton, who, independently, came up with the idea of calculus, essential not only to engineering, but also to the present-day financial industry.

The hot shots of Bay Street and Wall Street wouldn’t have their sexy “derivatives” were it not for Leibniz and Newton.

If Canada's National Research Council (NRC) had been around when these scientists were active, it wouldn’t have funded their work – given the Council’s new “business and industry” focus.

One could imagine the NRC telling George Boole: "You’re a smart guy and we’d love to finance you, George, but why are you so hung up on such abstract and theoretical stuff? Come to us with a business partner -- say someone in the coal industry -- and a project with a short term practical pay-off, and then maybe we could talk!"

How could those notional, mid-19th century NRC officials have known that Boolean Algebra would be an essential underpinning to 21st century software programming and design -- a key piece, in fact, of an enormous and highly profitable worldwide industry?

They would have had no way of knowing.

That is how the relationship between so-called ‘pure’ research and its practical applications works.

There is often a big time lag between the fundamental and theoretical insights of science and the commercial applications they make possible.

Corporations operate on a quarterly timeline. Their raison d’être is to provide value to their shareholders, in the here and now.

Science operates on a generational timeline. Theories, hypotheses, insights and discoveries feed into and build on each other, over time.

We have a name for the cumulative result of that process: knowledge. But knowledge is not high on the agenda of the Harper government.

What is 'societal value'?

Last week, when the federal Minister for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, and the President of the NRC, John McDougall, announced the NRC’s new orientation, they used blunt and almost insulting language to describe the work the Council has been supporting for years.

They said the NRC has had an “introverted culture” and that it has functioned as a “weak federation,” with individual researchers “pursuing their own interests”.

Goodyear and McDougall announced -- without trying to diplomatically sugar-coat the message --that the NRC would sharply shift its emphasis away from basic research.

From now on, they explained, it will not be good enough for the work the NRC funds to be “interesting”. NRC supported research must, hitherto, have a demonstrable and immediate “positive impact” -- and “societal value.”

Now, “societal value” could include research on the environment -- on, say, climate change. But the Minister and the NRC President were not talking about that kind of societal value.

For the new NRC, the yardstick for societal value will be provided by business and business alone.

If Canadian businesses are, for reasons that are not entirely clear, slow to adopt new technologies and to innovate, the government will try to use the NRC to force-feed the process.

To that end, the Council will be shedding a good number of its employees who do not have business acumen or an aptitude for fostering business partnerships and replacing them with new people who have the right skills.

The Minister and the NRC’s President want Canadians to remember that there are two parts to R and D: the R or research part and the D or development part.

We have been pretty good at the “R” part they say, but not very good at the “D”. And that’s what has to change.

Why does Canadian business eschew innovation?

The scientific community fears the government may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater in all this.

There is no clear evidence that the excessively cautious and timid habits of Canadian business are due to lack of access to the sort of support a re-invented NRC might offer them.

Those bad habits are more likely the result of Canada’s quasi-colonial economic history.

Businesses may not have developed the innovation reflex in this country because we have been for too long a provider of unprocessed raw materials.

As for Canada's manufacturing sector: it has been historically dominated by branch plants of foreign owned multinational corporations. Branch plants are not notoriously innovative. They are programmed to follow orders from headquarters.

Encouraging innovation might require government policies that stop favouring natural resources over manufacturing, and that allow, where it might help to prod innovation, a measure of direct public sector participation in industry.

Instead, the government hopes putting the business cart before the scientific research horse can, somehow, lead to useful results.

We could end up losing valuable scientific expertise, though, without any gain in innovation.

And that will be a permanent loss, because the current changes to the NRC -- as with so many of the changes wrought by the Harper government -- will be very difficult to reverse in the future.

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