This past April and September a number of demonstrations were held across Canada under the banner of “Stand Up for Science.” These efforts generated a lot of media coverage with a call on the federal government “to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest.” While any media attention for science is welcome, this sound bite is clearly intended to get the public wondering and maybe worrying: What is the level of commitment and has it been in the public interest?
From my perspective, the commitment to science in Canada over the past 15 years or so has been nothing less than extraordinary. Billions of dollars have been invested in science in Canada in such programs as the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Canada Research Chairs Program. But has this commitment to science also been in the public interest? To understand what government views to be “the public interest” one can go to a series of policy reports produced by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC), Industry Canada and the C. D. Howe Institute. A recurring theme in these and many other reports is the use of research and innovation as agents of economic prosperity. This is a perspective that has been repeated across virtually all industrialized nations since the 1950s and dominates university, government laboratory and sponsored private sector research funding the world over. However, as noted by Kevin Lynch, former Clerk of the Privy Council, in his 2012 Killam Lecture, “While often mistaken for it, innovation is not the same as research and invention; rather, it is the process of turning new ideas into commercially successful goods and services that bring perceived value to consumers… .”
In recent years, a number of program-based attempts to bridge the research and innovation enterprises have been generated or enhanced, perhaps encouraged or even catalyzed by these and related reports. The “Stand Up for Science” initiative in particular takes note of these activities, suggesting that “science funding has shifted focus towards the commercialization of research.” This mirrors concerns that funding for studying “basic” problems is losing out to “applied” research problems. While it is true that funding within programs like the cherished NSERC Discovery Grants Program system has become more and more competitive, it is not because the overall funding has decreased. The increased competition arises because there have been many quality university hires in the past decade, all of whom can make persuasive cases for research funding support. But there is also the misunderstanding that a discovery is the sole venue for basic research and, by inference, the sole indicator of research excellence.
Government approaches in support of Canadian science and technology initiatives have changed over the past 15 years. They will continue to react to the fast-paced changes in the world economy. The just-released CCA assessment, Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness, is particularly timely, as it addresses the efficacy of the research-innovation bridge building with the question: “Why has Canada’s research excellence not translated into more business innovation?” The two-part answer is surprisingly blunt. First, most innovation does not work in the linear sense, where academic research has been presumed to yield ideas that are followed by development and eventually commercialization by business. Secondly, business strategy in Canada is influenced by factors apart from those that motivate innovation. The report concludes that Canadian business will have to embrace innovation-focused business strategies to compete and survive. My guess is that this report is a prelude to further adjustments in government approaches to the research enterprise in Canada. Rather than “Stand Up for Science,” the motto might soon become “Keep Running for Science.”
Bruce Lennox is the former chair of McGill’s Department of Chemistry. He currently chairs the NSERC Discovery Grant Chemistry Evaluation Group and is a director of the NSERC CREATE in Neuroengineering.