Edmonton Journal, May 8, 2013
OTTAWA — Major changes that will shift the focus of the National Research Council from basic science toward more business-friendly research betray a serious misunderstanding of scientific progress, critics of the move say.
“I’m not convinced that we have a government that understands how science works, and understands the value of it. They look at it as something you can pick off the shelf,” Carleton University professor John Stone said.
“If you don’t do basic research, you’re basically eating away at your scientific capital. You need basic research, it’s often … the foundation on which applied work is done.”
Tuesday’s announcement of the restructuring of the NRC was made after a long waiting period among the scientific community.
Federal Science Minister Gary Goodyear said that while the purpose of science is to push the boundaries of understanding, it also must be used for “social and economic benefit.” Changes to the almost 100-year-old NRC will help fill the need Canadian businesses have for research and development, he said.
In 2011, a report for the federal government written by Tom Jenkins made several recommendations about the future of the NRC – including adopting a more entrepreneurial research model and creating a new body to direct it. Another recommendation would have divided NRC activities between other private sector bodies and government agencies – effectively dismantling the agency, in the eyes of many.
While the shift toward research and development for businesses follows many of the Jenkins report’s recommendations, the organizational changes announced by Goodyear do not disband the NRC.
Instead, Goodyear said the NRC would now focus on “industrial research, new growth and business development.”
This means much of the basic research the NRC has done traditionally will be left behind in favour of producing technology for business. Stone, an environmental scientist, said the NRC is a shadow of its former self, and the new reforms will only make things worse.
He said much federal research funding is already directed toward applied science and not basic research.
But Goodyear characterized the NRC’s new mandate as a way forward into the competitive world of business and technology in the 21st century. “The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull,” he said.
NDP science critic Kennedy Stewart agreed Canadian businesses need to do more research and development. However, he said taking money from basic research and transferring it to business research amounts to a “business subsidy.”
QUICK FACTS ABOUT THE NRC
– Founded during the First World War.
– During Second World War, did research and development for the military – including an ill-fated attempt to make an aircraft carrier from an iceberg.
– Invented the pacemaker in 1940.
– Developed a beacon to help locate airplane crashes.
– Helped develop the Canadarm, used on space shuttles and the International Space Station to support astronauts and assist with repairs.
– Recruited Canada’s first batch of astronauts.
– Employs about 4,000 people in about 50 facilities nationwide.
– Planned budget for 2013 about $900 million.