On the perils of the trickle-down economics philosophy now driving Canada’s scientific-funding model.
A recent editorial in Nature condemns the Canadian government’s media protocols for severely limiting what federal scientists can freely communicate to the general public. The criticisms are well-founded. To put it mildly, the current federal government has a “poor record on openness.”
But the problem for science in Canada extends far beyond the introduction of overt limits on “public access to publicly funded scientific expertise.” More worrisome is the now-dominant philosophy of trickle-down economics that drives science funding in this country.
Trickle-down economics for science presumes that commercialized science benefits society by improving the economy. This philosophy now shapes Canadian science in a number of troublesome ways. Research is not about knowledge production, but about the “knowledge economy” and the “delivery of tangible and measurable results” to create a “prosperous and resilient” economy. Our scientists are not so much engaged in developing a research agenda as in contributing to the “research enterprise.” In this context, it is easy to denigrate basic science, sometimes described as “blue sky” science, because it does not aim to create new products, new services, or new jobs.
Partnerships with industry are now the mainstay of the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. This program was established in 1989 to promote collaborative multi-disciplinary research. In 2007, not satisfied with the program’s commercial and business outputs, the federal government created two new NCE programs: The Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research was designed to “advance research and facilitate commercialization of technologies, products and services,” and thereby promote “maximum return on research and development dollars.” Similarly, the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence aims to “fund large-scale collaborative business-led networks to enhance private sector innovation.” The government invested $285 million over five years for the former, and $46 million over four years for the latter. Meanwhile, since 2009, no new money has flowed to the original NCE program, whose goals were more research-focused and less profit-driven.
While the NCE programs officially aim to secure “economic and social benefits for Canadians,” the social benefits are never more than what trickle down to the economy from the development and commercialization of new technologies.
In the drive to promote commercial success, the federal government now plans to transform the National Research Council (NRC). It will have a commercialization mandate and offer a concierge service to entrepreneurs. The NRC will help businesses and business-minded scientists translate their science into products and technologies to help grow the economy.
Commercialization is also heavily influencing health research, as seen in the government’s recent announcement of a renewed partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D) to “strengthen clinical research in Canada.” The legal mandate for the CIHR is to excel “in the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system.” The CIHR Act stipulates a dozen ways in which the agency is to pursue this mandate, including “encouraging innovation, facilitating the commercialization of health research in Canada and promoting economic development through health research in Canada.” This particular strategy has become a sort of mantra for the organization.
Increasingly, and as a direct result of the federal government’s funding philosophy of trickle-down economics for science, science that doesn’t support the “knowledge economy” is science that won’t get funded. Compared to this spectre, short-term efforts to muzzle federal scientists are tame interventions.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning movement in Europe known as Slow Science, the manifesto of which begins by saying:
We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.
Don’t get us wrong – we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media & PR necessities; we say yes to increasing specialization and diversification in all disciplines. We also say yes to research feeding back into health care and future prosperity. All of us are in this game, too.
The proponents of Slow Science explicitly recognize that “Science needs time to think” alongside time to read, time to engage in dialogue with the humanities and social sciences, time to digest, and time to fail. “Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward – at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.”
If our government could be helped to understand this, how different might our science be? More generally, if our scientists had the time and the resources to do their job well, how much more might Canadians and Canadian policy-makers benefit?
Canadians need to resist the crushing imperative that the federal government has imposed on science to sell itself in the familiar terms of immediate return on investment. Science should be about knowledge and benefit-sharing, not about economics and velocity.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.