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The Conversation: May 11 letters and other talking points of the week Add to ...

The NRC has its marching orders from the federal government: Focus on business-driven research projects, not basic science. Readers, print and digital, scrutinize the decision: Who should control science? To what purpose? Who should pay?

The National Research Council has set a new course that is supposed to feed “social and economic gain” (Science Council Rewired To Work With Industry – May 8). A few decades ago, AT&T – at the time, the most outstanding research organization in North America – undertook a similar restructuring of its Bell Labs. The result was catastrophic. The best scientists left because they did not wish to become concierges to industry. With its best scientists gone, Bell Labs essentially collapsed.

Perhaps it is not yet too late to learn from history.

Sidney van den Bergh, North Saanich, B.C.

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Armchair Cassandras should give NRC management and staff a chance to prove their mettle and make the planned transformation work. Excellence in research should be a given, but applying research will yield the payoff. Sure, NRC had many technological and scientific achievements in the 20th century, but in the main, they had little economic impact in Canada. Besides, what’s wrong with reinvesting some of the taxes the business sector pays to support the companies that contribute to our quantity and quality of life?

Ron Freedman, Toronto

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The great achievements of the NRC, such as the Canadarm, the pacemaker and the black box, could not have been developed without the previous pertinent knowledge provided by basic research. Universities do most of the basic research but are constrained by short-term competitive grants that penalize lack of short-term success. The NRC had the advantage of permitting longer term projects. It is a mistake to downgrade this component of the NRC.

George Sorger, Ottawa

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What Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, said was: “Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do. So something had to be done.”

What I heard was, “We’re completely baffled. We cut corporate taxes again and again, but all they did with the money was buy back their own stock, raise dividends and executive compensation, pile up huge cash accounts, and offshore Canadian jobs. All we could come up with next was to pay for their research ourselves – with taxpayer money. And we won’t be raising their taxes to pay for their research.”

Bruce Mason, Toronto

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Basic science is the only type of research that the government should be funding. The fact that it has no clear return on investment is why it makes no sense for the private sector to do it. Basic-science discoveries are then picked up and applied by the private sector.

By converting the NRC into a government subsidy for the private sector, the government is picking winners and distorting the entire premise of free markets that they supposedly espouse.

Jim Woodgett, Toronto

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Presenting Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute as a comparison for the NRC’s new business-oriented focus is misleading. While the Fraunhofer’s 66 institutes and research units do undertake applied research of direct utility to industry, Mr. Goodyear overlooked Germany’s massive Max Planck Society with its focus on fundamental research. Germany has a balanced investment in fundamental and applied research.

To push the focus of the NRC too much toward applied, business-oriented research is a mistake. Society’s practical benefits from scientific research emerge from a blend of fundamental and applied work. Canada needs both.

Malcolm Stott, Kingston

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This is what I teach young students: Science is finding out how the world works; technology is how we survive in the world, using the knowledge from science. Based on his actions, science and technology minister Gary Goodyear doesn’t seem to know that, or that basic science research is fundamental to innovation. This isn’t rocket science. (Well, some of it is.)

Gillian Kydd, Roberts Creek, B.C.

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How about giving businesses an incentive to make productive use of the billions of dollars they have squirrelled away, rather than jeopardize the future successes of the National Research Council?

Evan Simpson, St. John’s

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