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Federal budget's bid to spur innovation neglects the basics

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

The new federal budget's chapter on innovation and research  is almost entirely about supporting more applied science, which may stimulate jobs and the economy, but it is neglecting the basics.

When it comes to scientific research, there are two fundamental divisions: applied, which leads to a product, and basic, which leads to who-knows-where. 

When a scientific principle, such as chemistry, is developed into a headache pill, or thermodynamics are put to work in a car engine, that's applied science. It's popular among politicians, because there is a tangible object everyone can point to and say it provided jobs, increased productivity and, hopefully, an economic return. Everybody wins.

Basic science has no guarantee of a quick return, because it gathers knowledge just for the sake of knowing it.   

Non-scientists may find it hard to understand why the government should support the study of a worm you can barely see with the naked eye, or an unusual plant only found in the jungles of Borneo. But in fact, all major scientific discoveries have come from people asking basic questions and stumbling upon new ideas. That worm may hold clues to the action of cancer cells in the body, and the plant may lead to a new pharmaceutical.

A famous example of basic science leading to incredible discoveries is Michael Faraday, who, in the mid-1800s, worked with magnets, coils of wire and a compass to demonstrate how electricity can be generated in the wire by moving the magnet. Little did he know that his research would lead to the giant generators at the heart of power plants that use that exact same principle to provide electricity to our homes and to just about every electrical device, from your refrigerator to your iphone.

Canada's National Research Council was established in 1916, initially to advise the government on issues related to weapons research. But after the World Wars, it became focused on a blend of industrial and basic science, with 11 scientific institutes established across the country. Facilities such as the Herzberg Institute for Astrophysics, the National Institute for Biotechnology, the Institute for Marine Sciences, and many others from coast to coast, conduct the kind of research that simply tries to understand nature, from the tiniest molecules out to the farthest reaches of the universe.

The result is that on the international scene, Canada has a high reputation for our basic science.

Now, with the changes under the new federal budget, the NRC will be "refocused' to support demand-driven research. In other words, if industry needs some help developing a product, they can turn to the NRC expertise and laboratory equipment. 

This shift towards more industrial partnerships has many scientists, especially those in environmental science, concerned about their future.

At the same time, the federal budget is supporting a similar, stronger relationship between industry and universities, where innovative ideas developed in research labs can be brought more easily to market.

The buzz word throughout the budget is "Innovation,"  which, to this government, means new products and services. That kind of development is important and valuable, but it is not the kind of science that leads to new ideas.

Innovations are improvements over products that already exist. The Blackberry, a game-changing innovation, is a blend of the telephone, a computer and the internet, all items that existed before. A more fuel efficient car or one that runs on hydrogen is still a car.

Stem cells, on the other hand, which were proven to exist by Canadian scientists Till and McCulloch, came about by accident, while they were conducting basic research on the effect of radiation on bone marrow.  That work, more than 50 years ago, now has the potential to revolutionize medical science.

In Canada, the pendulum has swung between the basic and applied sides of science over the years and in the current budget, applied definitely wins out.

Industry-based science is important, but if we want to be truly creative, truly understand the world around us, then we can't forget the basics.