26 March 2013

On research, applied and otherwise

A story in yesterday's Globe and Mail provides fodder for the ongoing discussion in Canada over how much research should be basic versus how much should be applied. Federal budget ignites debate over what science is for features a much-needed debate over what some have termed "fettered research" - research that is directed, applied and linked explicitly to commercialization. The article is a fair and balanced view of the issue, which, while seemingly insoluble, is important for all of us involved in Canadian S&T to grapple with. I've pointed out before the issues and consequences of our HERD/BERD imbalance, and the real fact that, even with a world fourth ranking per capita HERD spend we just do not have the GDP to support unfettered research into every topic. We have to make choices, and orienting our best and brightest minds to the problems of the world - particularly those that concern Canada - are good candidates for prioritization, in my view. This is not popular with all. The article makes good points about the reorganization of the NRC, which is focusing more on linking industry to academia, and ensuring that Canada can get our BERD in order. The new voucher system for NRC IRAP announced in last week's budget is a good place to start, for example. And while there are certainly those not happy with the budget, I am heartened by the fact that most people from universities to colleges to industry are aligning on the need for the country to work together to solve our skills gap/mismatch and our research to commercialization issues. Focusing the discussion on how the public and private sectors can work together on everything from R&D to skills and education is a positive step forward. Skills are where the puck is going, and ensuring that the country's skilled workforce includes scientific, engineering, design, humanist and business thinking will help us to emerge as a post-industrial powerhouse in the innovation economy.

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