The Conservative love affair with targeted research

Tease the day: For years, the government has dedicated research money to very specific areas.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Gary Goodyear’s quest for commercialization continues. The minister of state for science and technology joined John McDougall, the president of the National Research Council of Canada, to tell the country that its premier research institution would, from now on, focus on “commercial value”—not basic research. The idea is that Canadian companies could use more help with research and development, and the NRC is best placed to provide that support.

Each time the government announces such a shift, opposition critics and their allies lash out. They argue basic research produces innovation no one ever saw coming. Indeed, The Globe and Mail points to several such inventions produced by NRC researchers: the most accurate and stable atomic clock of its era, built in 1975; a “portable bomb sniffer,” built in the 1980s; and sophisticated computer animation, first developed in the 1960s. Yesterday, Kennedy Stewart took his turn pointing these things out to the government. The NDP’s science and technology critic wondered aloud during Question Period why Conservatives would “turn their back on important research.”

Question Period volleys back and forth begin anew. We’ve seen this before.

For the better part of the Conservatives’ time in power, they’ve whittled away basic research funding in favour of specific fields. The NRC will now focus its energy on health costs, the manufacturing supply chain, community infrastructure, security, natural resources and the environment.

In each of the government’s past six budgets, new funding dedicated to three granting councils—the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—has routinely bypassed basic research.

In 2008, granting councils were to fund “industrial innovation, health priorities, and social and economic development in the North.” In 2009, SSHRC grants were to be “focussed on business-related degrees.” In 2010, NSERC’s additional $5 million in funding was meant “to foster closer research collaborations between academic institutions and the private sector” by way of the council’s Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation. In 2011 and 2012, NSERC’s funding was again focused on the Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation. Also in 2011 and 2012, CIHR found itself with $15 million dedicated to a Strategy on Patient-Oriented Research. In 2011, SSHRC’s funding was directed at studying the digital economy. In 2012, social sciences researchers were to focus on “industry-academic partnership initiatives.”

And, in Budget 2013, the story’s the same. NSERC will receive $12 million “to enhance the College and Community Innovation Program.” CIHR continues to focus on its Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research, and SSHRC funding will investigate “the labour market participation of persons with disabilities.”

This targeted research is a long, winding road. The government’s been at it for years, through minority and majority mandates. The opposition can criticize the government’s direction. But on this file, it can’t accuse them of being inconsistent.

What’s above the fold this morning?

The Globe and Mail leads with the National Research Council’s revamped focus on business-driven projects. The National Post fronts the apparent economic misfortune that befalls British Columbia when the province elects New Democratic governments. The Toronto Star goes above the fold with the lack of disclosure surrounding federal management consulting contracts. The Ottawa Citizen leads with the “sudden and drastic” changes at the National Research Council. iPolitics fronts Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s vault into first place in national polls. leads with a suspect in Cleveland’s missing women case having handed out flyers when one of the women disappeared in 2004. National Newswatch showcases the Halifax Chronicle-Herald story that asks exactly what the government’s $35-billion shipbuilding contract is supposed to deliver.

Stories that will be (mostly) missed

1. Infant mortality. Canada has the world’s second-highest rate of infant death on the day they’re born, says a study. Aboriginal rates, higher because of a lack of services, push up the number. 2. Aboriginal relocation. NDP MPP Gilles Bisson says Ontario could save millions of dollars a year by permanently relocating northern Aboriginals off floodplains and into safer areas.
3. Soviet research. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced the demise of funding for two programs meant to encourage scientists to stay in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. 4. Experimental Lakes. Despite the intervention of Ontario’s government, scientists can’t access a research station in northern Ontario that helps them understand how pollutants affect fresh water.

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