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 email@example.com.