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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.


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


Innovation is a slow process with a long-term horizon. It is not simply changing a line of code. Canadian industry tends to lag in innovation due to a focus on short-term gains without the far perspective. It is as much a boardroom problem as a technology problem. The radically altered mandate of the NRC perpetuates precisely the same mistake. Long-term research, vital to innovation, is jettisoned and replaced by a dozen business groups merchandising the short-term applied research for short-term profits.

T.M. Holden, Deep River, Ont.


When I was a university student in the 1960s, my physics professors were using lasers to study the properties of light. They said one day lasers would be powerful enough to cut through metal, just like in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. Little did they know that today we use lasers to play music, buy groceries and do microsurgery.

To dictate the direction of basic research based on today’s needs is incredibly short-sighted. Discovery research shines a light into the future, illuminating the way to endless possibilities.

Reinhart Reithmeier, professor, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto


Here’s a government that wants to use public funds for private research with no plan, no idea of the outcomes and no ownership. Leave scientific research to researchers or just break up the NRC.

Tom Ferris, Victoria



Confused, not confused

Re Senate Investigation Comes Under Fire (May 10): I shake my head and ask two questions.

1) Members of the group we supposedly depend on for “sober second thought” on our legislation seem to have been confused by terms such as “primary residence” and “secondary residence.” Don’t they know how to soberly ask for clarification, instead of just guessing (in their favour)?

2) Why were the other 100 or so members of that group not confused by the terms?

Michael Farrell, Oakville, Ont.


Oil sands : How to proceed

Jeffrey Simpson says Bitumen Needed Statesmen, Not Salesmen (May 10) to secure consensus on the oil sands’ benefits, and agreement on how to proceed with fewer environmental consequences. Pandering to environment radicals is a lose-lose proposition: They want the industry’s destruction.

The more hopeful approach Mr. Simpson suggested would squander billions of shareholders’ money on reducing “carbon intensity.” That capital should be used to discover and harness new energy sources, and create value for investors.

David Weiner, Peterborough


Great Names, Part 3

Re Great Names, Part 2 (letters, May 9): Add these to the list of great hockey names – Babe Pratt, Babe Siebert, Muzz Patrick, Mush March, Buzz Boll, Red Horner, Baldy Cotton and Cooney Weiland.

A footnote: On Nov. 12, 1931, Mush March, a winger with the Chicago Blackhawks, scored the first goal ever at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Ted Suggitt, Edmonton


Survey’s yeses, no’s

One of the deficiencies of the National Household Survey raised in several stories is that it was voluntary, and therefore various minorities were underrepresented.

As a “census taker,” I conducted hundreds of short and long-form questionnaires, on the phone and face-to-face. In my experience (perhaps statistically insignificant), refusals to do the NHS came mostly from Canadian-born, middle-age, not too well educated white people. Recent immigrants were eager to participate for reasons that are too many to explore here.

Jan Nowina-Zarzycki, Regina



If the planet seemed to get a little warmer this week, don’t blame climate change. It may have had more to do with the heat expended by more than two thousand readers who commented on The Globe and Mail’s interview with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and related stories – not to mention the thousands more who hit “play” on video clips of Mr. Gore’s conversation with editor-in-chief John Stackhouse.

During his recent visit to Canada, Mr. Gore had plenty to say about fossil-fuel production and consumption in his own country and its long-term impact on the environment as more carbon is released into the atmosphere. But – not surprisingly – it was his comments in connection to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and Canada’s role in the climate-policy debate that raised the temperature of the discussion.

From a scientific perspective, the basic story is beyond dispute: The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to climb sharply because of human activity. The various ways in which a carbon dioxide molecule can jiggle and dance ultimately makes it better at trapping solar energy than a molecule of nitrogen or oxygen, which is what most of the air is made of. Where scientists are still feeling their way forward is in understanding exactly how the extra heat we’re loading into the global climate system will change the planet and how fast. But even that technically difficult question is peanuts compared with the still knottier problem of what to do about it.

Mr. Gore’s comment that “there is only dirty oil and dirtier oil” rejects the premise that Canadian oil is more ethical and thus should be preferable because it comes from a democratic and U.S.-friendly jurisdiction. Those who agree with him say that, in the context of a world market, Canadian oil is no better. Those who disagree argue that – measured against the rest of global fossil-fuel production – Canadian oil is not meaningfully worse.

It’s human nature to leave hard problems to someone else. This gives the online exchange over Mr. Gore and Keystone extra poignancy. Whatever the outcome, we know that the conversations we’re having now about the costs and benefits of developing the oil sands will one day be read by those who are at the receiving end of the choices we make.

The intrepid souls who launched the age of oil from a tiny corner of rural Pennsylvania in the 1850s could not have have fully imagined what positive consequences in the form of individual mobility and global enterprise their actions enabled. In the post-carbon age to come – whenever it comes – which decisions will prove best and which voices from 2013 will still ring true?

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