Taking away basic science funding is not a long-term solution

19 Jun

I came across Scott Findlay’s article in the National Post a few weeks ago. While the Canadian government continues to boast its investment in science, those of us who work closely with basic science research know where the money is really going – into commercialization and application development.

In science, as elsewhere, where money is spent is as important as how much is spent. Most of the $8-billion allocated to R&D has been invested at the top of the scientific research pyramid, in technology development and commercialization. For example, virtually all of the new $454-million R&D expenditures in the 2013 budget target private-public partnerships, mostly in applied or commercialization research. Yet it is basic research that forms the base of the R&D pyramid, the wellspring of the pipeline to technology development and commercialization.

It is not to say that putting money into applications isn’t a great thing. It is – but you still want to have a strong foundation of basic science research, serving as the backbone. With the heavy emphasis on application development these days (because that’s where the money is – many new grants require a industrial collaboration component), what we will end up doing is to “guess” which basic science project will be more useful in the future, when the future isn’t here yet. This is like drafting major league players for 2033 when they are still playing t-ball, or finding the next Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby by looking at baby photos.

We might not see the immediate financial return of investing in basic science research, but we will benefit from it 10-20 years later. Without this investment, there will be a gap in the future of application development, and soon we will start falling behind other countries. Of course, the current government does not need to care about this much. It is the problem of the future elected government, isn’t it? But we should all care about it, because this future is ours.

What Scott Findlay said inspired me to draw the following.

Commercialization is not a long term solution sm
Can we strike a balance between investing in basic science research, and encouraging commercialization and development of applications? Hopefully. But cutting basic science funding is not the answer for our future.

***

Note: By the way, I really like this comment by ChadEnglish for the article. According to the comment, he’s an engineer so he is most likely to benefit from this shift to application development and commercialization.

Without a growing science base to build from the only thing we engineers can do is repackage the old technologies into new boxes. Engineering is also known as applied science. Without good science, and without good access to it, there is nothing to apply.

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One Response to “Taking away basic science funding is not a long-term solution”

  1. Artem Kaznatcheev June 29, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    I totally agree with this! Especially for government funding. Basic science is the riskiest and longest-to-reward type of work to fund, as such it is difficult for private sector to justify funding it. Thus, it is the job of governments (who should have longer term agendas) to invest in basic science, and leave the applications to industry and the private sector.

    That being said, with many governments and a globalized academic community with easy movement of both personnel and intellectual property from government to government, it becomes a bit of a public goods game. Each nation can hope that other nations invest in the risky but essential basic research, and focus their own funds on investing in quick-to-make-jobs and quick-to-make-money applied research.With a relatively small research economy compared to our southern neighbour, it isn’t clear to me that heavy investment in basic research is the optimal strategy for Canada. No matter how much I wish that it was :(.

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