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Deservedly or not, Stephen Harper's government has acquired a reputation for being anti-science. So, it was naturally seen as playing to type this week with its announcement that it was overhauling the mandate of the National Research Council to align the organization's activities with the needs of Canadian businesses.
Critics were quick to reject the plan as a blatant move to place the almighty dollar before the greater good of "knowledge." The head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers – a trade union for tenured professors – went so far as to call it a "very sad day for science in Canada." Cue the violins.
In truth, there is nothing "sad" about redirecting the NRC's focus away from basic research to address one of the missing links in Canada's innovation chain – the absence of a go-to applied research centre for firms seeking to take their ideas from the drawing board to the marketplace. Countries that do innovation best, including Germany and Finland, all have such collaborative entities in place.
Indeed, the 97-year-old NRC used to regularly instigate collaborations with private enterprise, cognizant of the fact that scientific discoveries are of limited use if they never leave the lab. Nortel Networks, in its heyday, conducted multiple joint projects with the NRC, including the 1988 creation of the Solid State Opteoelectronics Consortium of Canada. The latter did applied research in the area of fibre optics.
In recent years, however, the NRC has seen its activities scattered among 17 affiliated research institutes, with only loosely defined objectives and no clear performance benchmarks. Its $290-million annual budget has been spread too thin.
The 2011 Independent Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development noted that "the sheer diversity of these activities raises the question of what is the most appropriate mission of the NRC."
What's more, the NRC's once leading role in basic research has been superseded by a boom in university research. Since the Chrétien government dramatically increased funding for university research – funding that has largely remained in place under Mr. Harper – Canada has emerged as a world leader in basic research.
Indeed, a 2011 study by the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation praised Canada's performance, noting that government-funded university research accounted for 0.39 per cent of GDP here compared to 0.24 per cent in the United States.
We fall short, however, in applied research and business spending on R&D.
While the Independent Panel noted that the federal government "has substantially increased its support for higher education R&D over the past 15 years," it added that "there remains a gap with respect to collaborative R&D and innovation projects that are large scale, industry facing, demand driven and outcome oriented." It recommended transforming the NRC to fill that gap.
The Independent Panel, led by software executive Tom Jenkins, can hardly be accused of being anti-science. So, the reaction of the academic community to the Harper government's plan for the NRC was overwrought.
Perhaps it was driven by the prevailing climate of distrust toward the Conservatives among the scientific community and university presidents. Perhaps it was just nostalgia for the glory days of the NRC, when it pioneered the pacemaker, canola and the black box.
Not everything the Conservative government has done in the area of innovation policy seems wise. Its overhaul of the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Credit program last year seemed to have been motivated more by desire to save money and curb abuse than to spur innovation.
But the NRC plan holds promise. Sadly, Canadian businesses have a poor record of innovation. More collaboration with a more focused and results-driven NRC certainly can't hurt.
Konrad Yakabuski writes about public policy for The Globe and Mail.