15 May 2013

On science and society

News last week about the retooling of the National Research Council into a Research Technology Organisation (RTO) has drawn some predictable hand wringing about the state of science funding in Canada. News reports are rife with pundits ready to pile on the negative criticism about the change, saying this represents a dire time for Canada and the capacity of our scientists to engage in "pure" research, unsullied by concern over the market or for applied research. I wish to offer some ideologically neutral and agnostic points to refute this point.

First of all, I put "pure" research in scare quotes because it is a bad term to use. It seems to imply that applied research is somehow unpure. I doubt this is what those who use the term intend, but if we accept that language constitutes reality then labels matter. I've made the point before that in the world of "pure" versus Other research, ideas are just another raw resource that we export out (publish) to the detriment of future application (patent, to use a simplistic bifurcation). This is linked to our history as a resource extraction economy.

I much prefer how the OECD's Frascati Manual defines a typology of research: Basic, Applied, and Experimental Development:
Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view. Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective. Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed. (2.1.64)
Second, as Alex Usher has pointed out, the delineation between basic and applied research is a relatively recent phenomenon. Usher shows that the arguments around these terms are a false dichotomy that distorts along ideological lines that seem to line up with being either for or against business.

I've made the point many times before: not all research need have commercial or immediate applications. We need a strong discovery pipeline of basic research. But we also need to do two things often ignored in the current debate: turn our best and brightest minds to the problems of today and tomorrow, and make sure that when we do invent something we capitalize on it in Canada, rather than export the idea to buy back the product. Failure of these points will relegate Canada to further innovation deficit.

Here's a story about the McMaster University Biointerfaces Institute that shows that academic units can in fact work with industry. Instructive is the closing quotation from the Institutes's director: "'We’re operating this in a very different way from what a typical graduate student would see in a standard academic lab,' Dr. Brennan says. 'When students leave this place and end up going off into industry they’re going to be incredibly well trained.'"

This is the real point about encouraging greater academic-industry collaboration: creating more meaningful learning and potential for downstream innovation and productivity in the economy - including the economies of science and technology - by engaging students and industry. We must train all students to think about how industry works and about industry innovation. We need the entire population to have innovation literacy.

Even if we ignore for the moment the fact that Canada has the single worst record in the OECD for commercializing IP emerging from our world leading university research, and even if we ignore the fact that we educate more of our population to tertiary levels that any other OECD country yet we lag seriously in innovation and  productivity performance, and that we lead the G8 and are fourth in the world for HERD yet 16th for BERD, we are still left with the need to foster greater firm-level innovation in order to lift our moribund productivity. Actually, let's not ignore these points. Rather, we need to correct these issues. Orienting the NRC to aiding businesses to conduct more and better R&D in Canada is a good thing for the country. Encouraging our scientists, humanists and engineers to orient themselves to solving the problems of the day is a good thing. For when we engage all students in innovation - from basic to applied research and experimental development - we foster innovation literacy across the entire economy (science, technology, commerce) while we help to create made in Canada innovation. The transition of the NRC to an RTO is a positive step forward in helping Canada realize our S&T potential and the potential of our firms to be more than just a branch plant economy.

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