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Government Research in Canada July 8, 2012

Posted by Andre Vellino in Government Science, Universities.
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When I started as a Research Officer at the National Research Council six years ago, the idea of “research” – in the sense of systematically studying a topic for the purpose of advancing knowledge in the field – was not only encouraged but constitutive of the job description. In most respects, the work of an NRC Research Officer was indistinguishable from that of a University Professor – minus the teaching responsibilities.

Since then, there has been a gradual but significant shift in the function of Government research institutions in Canada. For instance, according to a presentation given to “Re$earch Money” by the president of the NRC, its Vision is:

To be the most effective research and technology organization in the world, stimulating sustainable domestic prosperity.

And its Mission is

Working with clients and partners, we provide strategic research, scientific and technical services to develop and deploy solutions to meet Canada’s current and future industrial and societal needs.

The first question that comes up with the Vision is: what is a “research and technology organization”? That phrase – “RTO” for those in the know – means something quite specific. It is a label for the set of things that includes such institutions as the Fraunhofer Institute and Battelle but also Finland’s VTT (“Business from Technology”) and Nato’s RTO.

Organizations like that do interesting things: they are catalysts for exchanging information, they set strategies, give advice, design new products, patent processes and bring mature ideas to commercial reality.  All of this is useful and important but it isn’t “basic research”, at least not in the sense of “advancing knowledge”.

So what is happening to basic research in government?  It is being outsourced to universities. The executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), James Turk, put it this way in an op ed column in the Ottawa Citizen a few months ago:

[Minster Goodyear] claims that [the NRC] no longer needs to [undertake basic research] because universities today play that role.

But, Turk also points out,

Many university-based researchers rely upon the NRC for their scientific work. By gutting the basic research program of the NRC, the government will be weakening university research.

Thus, from the government’s point of view, basic research should be an externality because it incurs long-term costs and no short-term benefits. By outsourcing research to universities long-term costs are downloaded to the provinces.

This was Nortel’s strategy too in it’s later years (~ 1995), and it was RIM’s as well (see also Canada’s Vanishing Tech Sector).

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