Poor Public Understanding is Killing Basic Research in Canada

This post is cross-posted from a blog post I wrote for the Science and Policy Exchange on December 1. For more insightful writing on science and how it relates to government, the media, and society at large, visit their site http://www.sp-exchange.ca

Years ago, I worked for the summer on my neighbours’ cash crop farm. We mostly worked with cabbages. It smelled terrible. My coworkers, tough guys in their forties, learned I was studying in the sciences, and had no end of recommendations of useful things I could do with my degree.

“Hey science-boy! You should make some cabbages that bugs won’t eat!”
“Hey science-boy! You should make cabbages that keep better in storage!”
“Hey science-boy! You should make stackable square cabbages!”

picOf course these comments weren’t serious, and came from small everyday frustrations on the job, but the assumptions behind them are interesting. These men viewed science solely as a tool to produce innovations, and by extension, to make their lives easier. I don’t think their attitude is unique. For the most part, today’s lay public views science as something that makes new smartphones and performance fabrics, not much more.

This is a problem. Science doesn’t work well when it’s focused at specific applications. When you work in the realm of uncertainty, one of the only things you can have confidence in is a high rate of failure. Spreading initiatives broadly and pursuing the most interesting questions as they arise is a more efficient use of resources, and improves the chance of success. This is especially important when we remember that many (most?) great innovations come from serendipity, not planned investigation, so the wider we spread our inquiry, the more likely we will hit upon something that will drive technology forward.

While fundamental science is poor at developing specific solutions, it excels in discovering new principles. Sometimes these principles can translate directly into commercial products, but more often they form part of an accumulated wisdom that moves our understanding incrementally forward. The useful applications emerge naturally, albeit slowly, from that understanding. But that’s boring. And certainly isn’t a compelling story.

What is a compelling story?

Innovative new technology will convert industrial greenhouse gas emissions into commercial products

Canadian companies developing natural health products will be able to get science-proven, competitive new products on shelves faster

“Canadian firms will now be able to transform agricultural and forestry by-products to create new materials and reduce the use of petroleum-based polymers (plastics).”

The amount of certainty in those statements should make any scientist bristle. It betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific process and a fundamental arrogance that the result is predetermined, not subject to any uncertainty. These projects are part of the National Research Council’s new mission to shift “the primary focus of … work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development”.

At the NRC and other government research institutes across Canada, the research climate is moving towards projects with the potential to produce marketable products, away from pursuit of understanding of the world around us. Government-funded research agencies across the country are being retooled to stop looking outward and pursuing novel ideas, instead turning inward, transforming into glorified factories. This is an extremely short-sighted strategy, crippling our capacity for innovation.

If I’m generous, the politicians enacting these changes are influential laypeople, at least as far as science is concerned. They don’t recognize that the long-term benefits of fundamental research are being lost as they focus myopically on risky but sexy-sounding megaprojects. If I’m a little more cynical, they realize that the public thinks science exists solely to produce new products. They exploit this by claiming they’re working to improve the lives of the average Canadian, and will include that in their re-election platform. The amount of times the term “strengthening our economy” gets dropped into government research press releases suggests the more cynical interpretation.

So what needs to change? To start, those in power need to recognize the importance of fundamental research to the long-term health of a society. We’re on a treadmill moving forward, and if we don’t keep pursuing challenging questions, we fall behind. More importantly, the public perception of science has to change. As long as Mike from Canmore is happy that his tax dollars are propping up companies instead of pursuing important fundamental discoveries, nothing will change. Scientists need to hold politicians accountable, but more importantly, they need to educate the public on the importance of pure research to long-term innovation. The layperson needs to know that pure research is a long-term investment that pays economic dividends many election cycles into the future.

The current direction of government-funded research in this country is troubling. Without public understanding of the importance of fundamental research, the trend will continue, and the foundations of our research apparatus will continue to erode. However, there may be one positive effect – my coworkers might finally get those square cabbages.

Edit 2015.09.02: I’ve updated my account since I first wrote this post. If you’d like to follow me online, find me @superhelical