Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making NRC tool of industry bad for science

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I'm writing about the decision of the Harper government to let Canadian industry "direct research" at the National Research Council. This is short-term thinking that in the long run is bad for business, bad for government, bad for taxpayers and bad for science.

Basic science is the foundation of everything we do today. Purely theoretical research in mathematics and philosophy end up having practical and profitable applications.

Symbolic logic was developed in philosophy, but is the basis for modern computer science.

Einstein's theories led to the development of electronic technology from lasers to cellphones.

Canola was developed over decades in Winnipeg at the NRC and Agriculture Canada research station, developing a crop that has been worth billions to western Canadian farmers.

The Canadian West was built on innovation: the development of a strain of Marquis wheat that could be harvested within our short growing season by the Experimental Farms Service, a government department. Continual innovation has been necessary as older strains fall to disease.

The minister literally said the days where a researcher could make a breakthrough are gone.

For hundreds of years, people have thought nothing new could be invented, only to be proven wrong.

Abandoning basic research means Canada will always be playing catch-up while other countries sprint ahead.

There are also serious questions about accountability and public funds. Why are Canadian taxpayers directly subsidizing the kind of research that could, and probably should, be paid for by industry?

It means industry is transferring all the costs and risks of research to taxpayers while most of the benefits -- including intellectual property -- will remain in private hands. Is that the role of publicly-funded science?

There is also no accountability. What is the mechanism for holding someone in industry accountable for the decision they made directing taxpayer's dollars if it proves to be an expensive flop?

Many of the bad consequences of this policy may be unintended, but they are certainly obvious. The government should reconsider.


Dougald Lamont is a Winnipeg author and businessman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2013 A9

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