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Are Canadian scientists for sale?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 28, 2012

This blog is about both an unexpected win as well as a possible warning.

First it turns out in raw science Canada punched well above its weight class. Although only producing about 1/10 the papers in science as the USA or UK, our papers are cited more. We have the most influential scientist in the world based on citations…and that is everything in the world of academia.

Now you may ask what a ‘citation’ is and why is it so important. Well, simply put a citation is a footnote. When I write an article and I make some factual claim, it should be supported by some research…I use a footnote pointing to the proof of my claim.

In our context, when a researcher publishes a paper, it depends on the work of others to provide a starting point for their ‘advancement’. It also depends on the work of others to re-enforce their interpretation of their claims and results.

It is here that Canada seems to, at the moment at least, be riding high. We can claim that our research is the most important because if seems to be the foundations of so much other work…that if it was not done, all other research would not exist or at least be on weakened ground.

 

On the list of “things to keep our eyes on”, word has come out of Ottawa about an ongoing effort to transform the National Research Council’s directions. The NRC is a government agency that funds the majority of research in Canada.

Cha-ching

The Harper government would like to see the agency focus less on “blue sky” projects and develop a ‘concierge’ or “1-800 number” service for businesses. The aim of this more ‘business friendly’ initiative is to encourage technological innovation in Canada with, I will assume, the aim of increasing industry in Canada.

On the positive side, it seems that the current government does not intend on reducing the investment we make into blue-sky research but hopes to make our top-notch scientist available to industry to help them move projects forward.

It also seems, I think, that they hope to make this a bi-lateral relationship; that is as businesses make requests for our scientific expertise they will be obligated to kick in at least a percentage of the funding. In this way, the ‘seed money’ of the NRC will be amplified by the investment by the private corporations

On the neutral side, I am not sure that the win-fall that government may expect will come. Industry already employs a large number of scientists and don’t see why they would ‘out-source’ the very patents they rely upon for their livelihood (as we all know now, making things is not where the money is but the royalties you get others to pay when they make things…usually in China).

In the old days, Industry would have private think-tanks where research; both technological and deep science would be done. However, less and less money is being spent by business, who prefer to use government funded universities to do the expensive ‘blue sky’ research and then ‘appropriate’ the research just prior to patent-ability.

This leads to the negative side; first it seems fair and appropriate that if 90% of the funding and work of research into discovery “X” was public sources, then 90% of the ensuing patents should also be held by the public (i.e. the state or state institution…like a university). But this could be me just quibbling over details…and my usual pro-society bias.

The other, and I think the biggest concern by scientists, is the time loss. I should explain that there are really two kinds of research – scientific and technological. Scientific research, or blue sky research, is done to discover something about the universe; be that the properties of anti-hydrogen, the genetics of stem-cells or how small a motor can be. They progress our understanding of the universe but don’t, in themselves, result in THINGS.

Things are what technological research is all about. It often, builds upon the scientific research and asks the question “I know the world works this way, what can I do with that?” This research creates the iPad, the new power cell, the new drug to treat impotency. This is where the money is; however this would not be possible without the first part.

In fact, one of the growing problems (most notable in the antibiotics) is that much technological research is based or re-working previous technology, resulting in an absents of ‘new things coming down the pike’.

Now, the negative is first, there are only so many hours in a day. If our scientists are directed to perform the ‘concierge’ service, that is time working on (mainly) technological issues at the expense of scientific research.

Another related issue scientists have proffered is that these ‘joint’ projects or ‘services’ the NRC will provide will be contract based. That means the research scientist will not be able to pursue unexpected avenues of research if they arise.

An example I heard about is one researcher was doing transplant study on mice, during their work they noticed some unusual nodules. They dropped their current research and investigated these nodules that turned out to be Nobel Prize winning research into stem cells.

This could not have happened if they were under contract to some company to develop a mechanism for bone-marrow transplantation; they would be contractually obligated to continue on the transplant research while the ‘unexpected’ discovery may be left on some shelf to be forgotten.

Along with this possible loss of academic freedom, they will also be losing research time because the work most likely to be requisitioned will be technological and thus less time for science research. Some fear that if we do less science research, we will lose our high standing in the science community.

Okay, to be fair, this is still more an idea…a future plan, than anything specific the Harper government is doing. The NRC has already done advertising to promote this new role as can be seen in this promotional video.

 

I also question the assumption that if we provide services and funding to private corporations they will first spend more research money here and second it will improve our economy. It seems if we already have top-rated scientists, they should be spending here already and if they are not it is for other geo-economic issues. Also, even if discoveries are made here, the companies benefiting will more than likely be trans-nationals who will take the research and run…probably to China for production and the Cayman Islands for profits.

It is something that may not be a negative…maybe it will be; regardless it is something we should keep our eyes on so as to ensure our science remains top-notch.

Learn more:
Biblio-metric evaluation and international benchmarking of the UK’s physics research
The Current – National Research Council changes driven by business needs
Public science takes another hit at the NRC when will the cuts end?

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