During the 1890s, the successful British pharmacist Henry Wellcome established a pair of labs in London to conduct physiological and chemical research. Then he gave his team of researchers a mandate that most scientists today can only dream of: Follow your noses, he told them. And they did. In the face of skepticism from academics, the Wellcome labs began pumping out peer-reviewed scholarship that made an important contribution to science while putting Wellcome - a company with a promising future - on the map.
When Willard Boyle, Canada's newest Nobel laureate, spoke disapprovingly last week about how scientists have to ante up a "business plan" in order to get funding for curiosity-driven research, his words resonated with researchers across the country. In accepting the prestigious prize - for discovering an electronic device that would lay the groundwork for the development of digital imaging - Prof. Boyle said governments are increasingly compelling scientists to focus on applied research that pays off quickly, in the form of a patent, a marketable product or a spin-off business. Cast in the language of investment portfolios, public research funders are leaning too heavily toward short-term returns at the expense of long-term growth.
Neuroscientist Bruce McNaughton has a more trenchant analogy that most politicians will recognize: "Curiosity-driven research is a bit like passenger railroads," says the renowned University of Lethbridge researcher, who recently returned to Canada after a long stint in the United States. "If you let the knowledge base, skills and infrastructure deteriorate, they are not going to be there when you need them, like we desperately do today in Canada."
It's not a new accusation. Twenty-three years ago, University of Toronto chemist John Polanyi lobbed out a similar criticism when he went to Stockholm to accept his own Nobel Prize. At the time, Brian Mulroney's Tory government was slashing funding for research while touting a "matching" grant program intended to accelerate the commercialization of university research.
Musing that ambitious young researchers would be well advised to go abroad, Prof. Polanyi warned that scientists become risk-averse if there are too many strings attached. "If they were asked three years later, 'Did you actually make some progress toward the sort of technology which you said might flow from your work?' and you would admit you didn't - because you usually don't - the sponsor of the research … simply takes the research money to someone else and asks the same impossible requirement."
Nobel winners, of course, receive a big soapbox along with their prize money and the medal. But are these lions of science simply expressing the self-importance of academe? Or have they put their fingers on a chronic source of short-sightedness embedded in Canada's overall philosophy about research and development?
About 15 years after the Wellcome labs were established, a pair of scientists working there - George Barger and James Ewens - synthesized a chemical called dopamine, a compound that one of their colleagues, Henry Dale, found to behave like the hormone adrenaline. At the time, it was little more than an interesting observation. And so the story about the recognition of dopamine's potential - which would eventually lead to dramatic advances in the treatment of neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease - ground to a halt.
On a per-capita basis, Canada doesn't do a lot of research compared with innovation-driven nations such as Finland. But since Prof. Polanyi won his Nobel in 1986, successive governments have rolled out a series of lucrative research programs dominated by conditions and specific policy goals: reversing the brain drain, improving living standards, accelerating technology transfer.
These days, the Harper government pumps hundreds of millions into energy-industry technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Yet the Tories last winter picked a fight with the scientific community by tabling a stimulus budget that proposed cutting $150-million in funding to Canada's three national research funding agencies.
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