I thought that Canadians were supposed to be the reasonable ones

I haven’t been able to work up much umbrage over the proposed move by  Republican Congressman Lamar Smith to change the way the National Science Foundation grants are awarded. I think that the proposed changes are a bad idea, but would have much less practical effect than some people claim.

Via Phil Plait, I see that the Canadian government seems to be actually doing what people hyperbolically claim the Smith bill would do:

The government of Canada believes there is a place for curiosity-driven, fundamental scientific research, but the National Research Council is not that place.

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value,” John McDougall, president of the NRC, said in announcing the shift in the NRC’s research focus away from discovery science solely to research the government deems “commercially viable”.

I don’t know enough about Canadian science, or Canadian government workings in general, to be sure, but this sounds exactly like what Lamar Smith wants to do in the US. The difference is that it appears to be actually happening in Canada, whereas even if Smith’s bill were to pass, I don’t think it would have the effect he’s aiming for.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this is that it’s being done with the approval of the head of the National Research Council, who actually said

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

It’s easy to imagine this sentence coming out of the mouth of a member of the US Congress,  but not from the head of, say, the National Science Foundation.

Phil Plait on why this is wrongheaded:

This is monumentally backwards thinking. That is not the reason we do science. Economic benefits are results of doing research, but should not be the reason we do it. Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.

In the 19th century, for example, James Clerk Maxwell was just interested in understanding electricity and magnetism. He didn’t do it for monetary benefit, to support a business, or to maximize a profit. Yet his research led to the foundation of our entire economy today. Computers, the Internet, communication, satellites, everything you plug in or that uses a battery, stem from the work he did simply because of his own curiosity. I strongly suspect that if he were to apply to the NRC for funding under this new regime, he’d be turned down flat. The kind of work Maxwell did then is very difficult to do without support these days, and we need governments to provide that help.



Published by

Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “I thought that Canadians were supposed to be the reasonable ones”

  1. I agree that the main reason for basic research is for its own sake, not for practical benefit, neither now nor later. Nevertheless, blue-skies research does often lead to very practical benefits, sometimes decades or centuries later. I’m not talking about the James-Burke style connections, but concrete results from concrete research.

    There are versions of the story with both Disraeli and Gladstone who was told, after asking Faraday what good his stuff would be, “I don’t know, sir, but some day you may tax it”.

    One could actually make the opposite claim: if research has an immediate practical advantage to industry, then industry should fund it, not the science council or whatever.

Comments are closed.