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André Picard

André Picard

ANDRÉ PICARD

Science shouldn’t be all business Add to ...

Last Thursday, during a visit to IBM headquarters in Markham, Ont., Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his government’s science and technology strategy.

Like all Harper government-branded products, it has a grandiose title: “Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation” – and features the buzzword du jour, “innovation.” It also opens with some bons mots from the PM himself.

“The success of our economy, the prosperity of our communities and the well-being of our families depend on advancing cutting-edge science, technology and innovation in Canada,” Mr. Harper wrote, hailing a “new strategy that leverages the expertise and resources of postsecondary institutions, industry and government to translate brilliant theories and ideas into applications that will improve the day-to-day lives of Canadians and generate economic growth and jobs across the country.”

The document identifies five “priority areas” where the government plans to focus funding and create jobs, namely:

• Environment and agriculture;

• Health and life sciences;

• Natural resources and energy;

• Information and communications technology;

• Advanced manufacturing.

At the IBM event, Mr. Harper also announced that $1.5-billion (over seven years) in the “new” Canada First Research Excellence Fund would go to these priority areas. CFREF was actually announced in the last budget, but this government loves to make funding announcements over and over again.

What the Prime Minister announced was not really a science strategy, but a business strategy – and a short-sighted, self-serving one at that. The implicit premise is that all you need to do is drop a few bucks in this magic machine called “science” and out the other end comes profit and jobs.

Innovation cannot be generated (and measured) with a simple, linear equation in which research begets technology, technology begets innovation and innovation begets jobs. But universities and funding bodies have taken to promoting this simplistic formula in the belief that it’s the only way to extract funding from simple-minded politicians, and government has made it one of the cornerstones of its economic policy.

Surely science has greater value to society than merely producing the next widget, even if measuring that value may be difficult. If we are to shift from a resource-based economy to a knowledge economy, we have to invest in brain power.

This is not to suggest that government should simply pour money into scientific research willy-nilly. But nor should it limit itself to providing subsidies to profit-making businesses, which is what the new science and technology strategy amounts to.

Government’s role should be to invest tax dollars for the collective good. In science, that means investing where businesses won’t, namely in basic research. A secondary purpose is to direct tax dollars where there are shortcomings and great public need, such as aboriginal health, mental health and repairing environmental damage (as opposed to just extracting more oil out of the ground). The strategy starves already neglected areas.

Whether it ultimately creates jobs or not, innovation is a complex process. It emerges in an environment where there is healthy pursuit of knowledge, an exchange of ideas and no small measure of serendipity.

The scientific environment the federal government has created is precisely the opposite: Scientists are muzzled, more time is spent on bureaucracy required to get funding than on research itself, and the only measure of success is return on investment.

The reality is that the government investment in scientific research has been at best stagnant in recent years. We’ve seen the multiplication of targeted funds and programs (targeted to business goals and with the express purpose of generating good photo-ops), but not an increase in overall funding.

The main funding agency, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, has undergone massive internal reshaping, mainly for the purpose of getting scientists to do government’s bidding and be more business-like by raising matching funds for their research.

The problem with this approach is that it won’t result in better science or more innovation. On the contrary, it will make scientists shy away from taking risks or from pursuing “paradigm-shifting” ideas (speaking of buzzwords). Instead, they will opt for projects with sure-fire return on investment in the short term, and good political optics that ensure continued funding.

In short, the new science and technology strategy will result in the rich getting richer, and all of us being the poorer for it.

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Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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