Scientific curiosity fuels growth

Posted on in Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – Peter Howitt, a transplanted Canadian at an Ivy League American university, proposes a sensible science policy for Ottawa.
Jun 17 2013.   By: Carol Goar

Heartsick scientists have lobbied, pleaded and rallied Canadians, but the prime minister’s resolve is unshakable. The National Research Council (NRC), with its proud history of scientific breakthroughs — from canola to the electric wheelchair — must become a business-directed agency focusing on commercial innovation.

But basic science can still thrive Canada, says Peter Howitt, an expert on technological change, economic growth and national productivity. In fact, the professor emeritus at Brown University — a transplanted Canadian — regards Stephen Harper’s move as a step forward, one that could lead to a badly needed reorganization of the way Ottawa fosters and disseminates leading-edge research.

Howitt has just written a paper for the C.D. Howe Institute, From Curiosity to Wealth Creation, showing how Canada can use Harper’s decision as a jumping-off point to modernize its underperforming, resource-dominated, economy.

His plan may be too bold for the Harper government and Canada’s tight-fisted corporate leaders. But it is economically sensible and scientifically sound. It proposes a four-step transformation.

  • First, the National Research Council would embrace its new role as a bridge between science and industry and strive to become a pan-Canadian technology transfer institution. “The NRC is, to some extent, a relic of the era before the government adopted a comprehensive policy with respect to science and technology,” Howitt says. “It is not as well-placed as universities to undertake the kind of scientific research that a country needs to remain on the frontiers of science and technology in the modern world.”
  • Second, Ottawa would shift the locus of scientific research in Canada from the NCR’s labs to the universities, providing them with the resources to attract the best researchers in the world. “Though it may seem paradoxical, the evidence supports the view that the greatest benefit to society will come from scientists for whom practical utility and individual financial reward are minor considerations,” he says. “The best way to attract such scientists is to redirect our research support towards the problems that are most challenging from a scientific point of view, not towards those that bureaucrats view as the most likely to lead to commercial success.”
  • Third, business would get off the sidelines. For decades, corporate Canada has balked at investing in the products and processes of the future, despite generous tax incentives and a succession of federal innovation strategies. “It is doubtful that Canada will be able to close the productivity gap with the U.S. until businesses start to play their part instead of relying on universities to do more than their share.”
  • Finally, with a clear differentiation between research (pure science) and development (commercialization), scientists would be free to post their findings online and collaborate internationally.

There is a lot to like about Howitt’s plan. It imposes a rational shape on Ottawa’s scattergun approach. It maximizes the impact of the $30 billionCanada spends to foster innovation. And it lays out a division of responsibilities: universities do basic science; the NRC (or a similar agency) develops commercial applications; and business buys and puts in place the infrastructure to implements the results.

But there are reasons to be skeptical.

The first is the mindset of the Harper government. Nothing the prime minister or his minister of science and technology have said suggests any openness to curiosity-driven science, which underpins everything from new drugs to smart technologies.

The second is the attitude of corporate Canada. Nothing business leaders have said suggests any willingness to invest in the discoveries that could make them industry leaders.

The third is the level of mistrust in the scientific community. Nothing researchers have said suggests they’d be any happier under new institutional arrangements.

There is a slim chance that some of Howitt’s reforms will find their way into federal policy. But even if Harper spurns the plan, it offers the presidents of Canada’s universities, the provincial premiers and the leaders of the opposition a starting point if they want to take the lead in building a more dynamic economy.

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