Business will profit, the rest of us lose

Russell Wangersky
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My father was a scientist, a chemical oceanographer. He was interested in the makeup of the ocean — why nutrients were in one place but not another, and why organisms could be successful against all odds.

My father came to Canada to explore and research and discuss, part of the great openness of science, where people with different opinions and ideas fought and argued and eventually agreed, based on facts. His was a theoretical sort of scientist — there was no magic and immediate business bullet in what he did, although there were business opportunities, like a system he developed that grew plankton as food for fish farming.

He would be horrified at the current state of affairs — not the least because of the gagging of federal scientists and because of the Harper administration’s apparent rejection of scientific facts in favour of ideological goals.

But he’d also be wound up by now with the changes proposed for the National Research Council. The NRC is having its structure changed as a result of the new budget, and instead of focusing on research for research’s sake, it is now going to be expected to focus on large-scale industrial research projects. In other words, instead of doing the basic science that industry would simply refuse to do, the NRC is going to be a kind of taxpayer-funded laboratory that will essentially free businesses from having to take their own risks.

Companies used to do research themselves. Why? Because it was an investment.

I remember — back in the days of Brian Mulroney — when the federal government began its “centres of excellence” program, a program that was supposed to move science in Canada away from its leading-edge status as a home for theoretical work, instead to focus much more on applied science. The idea was, much like the change to the NRC, that it was better to focus on science that would give a leg-up to existing business.

The problem my dad saw with that was a quick — and perhaps idealistic — one. Scientists aren’t businessmen, and businessmen aren’t scientists. Bureaucrats are neither. All three, he argued, have their own skills.

Scientists moving in a theoretical direction may be fascinated by a particular set of observations, and might want to find out more. Businessmen may see the way particular work could help their industry. Bureaucrats work inside a fascinating hive that requires its own kind of self-protective thinking and careful attention to the whims of changeable politicians.

Making them all work together for the same goal, he said, drags everyone down to the same average.

Would a bureaucrat picking projects to fund (and trying at all costs to avoid mistakes) be able to recognize that a scientist working on the viscous jelly that makes seaweed fronds float recognize that the thickener could become a food industry stalwart?

Probably not. The thing is, until the right point, the businessman and the scientist wouldn’t recognize that, either. You don’t hunt for winners, you find them — and there’s a lot of trial and error involved.

Worst of all in the new changes to the NRC is that the federal government is making the same fundamental mistake that it made by cutting business taxes drastically and expecting businesses to go out and spend that money on upgrades. (They could, of course, have simply given businesses broad tax exemptions for investing in modernization, but that kind of leg-bone-

connected-to-the-thigh-bone logic is apparently not the kind of thing that makes corporations happy.)

The current federal government apparently thought the companies involved would be overwhelmed at the federal government’s largesse and would brim with goodwill in response, investing that money for the good of Canada, instead of putting the cash into their own businesses first. Anyone surprised that they didn’t?

All the NRC changes are, really, is another kind of corporate welfare — and it’s unbelievable to expect goodwill to rule the day. Companies that don’t have to invest in manufacturing upgrades to get tax breaks, simply won’t. Companies that don’t have to do their own research won’t do that either. And making the NRC’s senior bureaucrats pick winners? It’s a mug’s game, almost certainly destined for failure.

I remember something said to me years ago by a very successful businessman, who had just taken millions of dollars of federal funding he didn’t need to build a new building — he was flush, and could have expanded his operation without any government aid at all.

His take on the situation? “If the government gives you a cookie, you take it.”

We should close the cookie store.

We shouldn’t give businesses tax breaks and just “hope” they’ll invest.

And we shouldn’t do their research either.

All we’re doing is making them fat and lazy.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: NRC, Research Council

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • crista
    May 16, 2013 - 09:59

    How any one can predict and make predictions on hand outs about healthy individuals and what party they vote for and that can assume by reading an article and comments with out proof can certainly tell you some thing about the writer of the comment????

  • Petertwo
    May 12, 2013 - 08:20

    I guess businesses are now entitled to the same benefits as the banks, being that they are businesses as well, since the federal government bailed out some banks to the tune of $114 million. I'm not sure if that was a loan, but the precedence was established. I have never understood how banks with depositors - selling stocks, charging depositors for all sorts of services giving nothing back - needed a bail out at all. They lost their depositor's money? So now businesses can access taxpayers as well. The only ones not sucking at the trough are the ones paying into it. Soon there will be no straw to make the bricks either, with jobs farmed out abroad, and laying off people in the necessary services here.

  • Lane
    May 11, 2013 - 23:21

    Wangersky says that by doing research and development for the benefit of businesses, "All we're doing is making them fat and lazy." That may be true. But if so, the same principle must apply to ACOA grants. Would Wangersky do away with ACOA too? And what about welfare for individual citizens, as well as EI? Don't those things make Canadians "fat and lazy?" Would Wangersky do away with those things as well? I suspect not, based on the socialist bent in his past writings. But logical consistency has never been a hallmark of lefty ideologues like Wangersky.

  • Tony Rockel
    May 11, 2013 - 23:19

    Great editorial and timely, too. In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen didn't say to himself "today I'm going to look for a way to see through solid objects". Instead he was curious about what happened when a high voltage electric current was passed through an evacuated glass tube. Totally by accident he discovered a mysterious form of radiation coming from one end of the tube. This radiation could pass through solid objects and form images on photographic film. Roentgen called this radiation "X-rays". There's no way he could even have known where to start if some bureaucrat had told him he needed to develop an X-ray machine. Nobody at that time even dreamed that such a thing was possible. The same argument applies to the development of the laser and countless other discoveries. These are dark days for innovation and free scientific inquiry.

  • Herry
    May 11, 2013 - 17:23

    harper is an absolute idiot !!! maybe this idiot can hitch a one way trip to mars. this is one way we can get rid of this pathetic fool !!!

  • crista
    May 11, 2013 - 11:07

    Such an interesting article about some one that tried to make a difference in scientific ways he left natural of nature and got involved in the theoretical life of bussiness and when you do not have the knowledge in bussiness and not saying he did not know what he was doing but he done it and reading he is not the only one,it is like trying to do some thing that was already done???? to spend money to make money,was it some thing like what your friend that was flushed that had done????working for the government???? and what were you saying about the cookie jar,more than the cookie jar needs to be closed. Good article it looks like the cookie jar dropped and there is nothing but a mess and do not seem like anybody knows how to clean the mess only when it comes to themselves and some one they need to do it for them????

  • Christopher Chafe
    May 11, 2013 - 08:23

    You have no problem in blasting governments for giving "handouts" to corporations, but I have to wonder do you share the same feeling about government giving "handouts" to healthy individuals who refuse to go to work. I would assume probably not as you are a supporter of the NDP party.

    • Chantal
      May 11, 2013 - 16:39

      So the unemployed are unemployed because they refuse to go to work? Pretty simple logic. Good thing you'll never be unemployed.

    • L.McCutcheon
      May 11, 2013 - 20:47

      It appears the 2nd comment has little to do with science and it presumes that handouts to corporations are good..For Who? certainly not the scientists or the people who pay the bills only good for those who sit complacently by and watch this country turn into a fascist state where if it isn't good for the company and the CPC cant be good .

    • Tony Rockel
      May 11, 2013 - 22:38

      1) Corporations don't need any more handouts than they're already getting. 2) You conjure up a picture of hordes of "healthy" people unwilling to work, which is part of the usual mean-spirited "let's demonize the poor because it's all their fault" rhetoric, when in fact the cost of supporting a small minority of layabouts is minuscule compared to the corporate sponging and Wall Street plunder that goes on 24/7 without a whisper of complaint from types like you.