Thursday, June 06, 2013

Have we killed Fundamental Science?

In Canada recent changes to government funding programs has resulted in protests proclaiming the "Death of Scientific Evidence". Adorned with signs, coffins, and white lab coats, many Canadian researchers were protesting against censorship of environmental research results (which I also oppose). However, many academics associate with these sentiments because federal funding programs have placed much more emphasis on academics working with industry in recent years (which I also support). Curiosity driven research funding is much harder to obtain than industry supported research. For example, Industry backed NSERC Engage grants can be submitted any time with over 90% acceptance. This is not only happening in Canada but in other parts of the world as well (e.g. the CDT in UK). So this begs the question:
Are academics are at the mercy of corporations, and no longer able do fundamental science? 
Many academics are surprised when they hear that industry is simultaneously being held to academic standards. Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentives requires corporations to resolve scientific or technological uncertainty, adopt hypothesis testing/scientific method, and demonstrate advancement in science and technology. 
It seems as though corporations are being told to be more like academics.
We need academics to lead in fundamental research and industry to lead in delivering customer value. While the novelty focused review process pushes academics towards niche areas of low societal impact, dwindling stock prices drive industry leaders to focus on short term results rather than long term profitability. 

It is simply not true that government and industry direction hinders fundamental research. Consider government directed projects in cyptography and the radar during WWII. The Google Voice and Siri interfaces we use today would not have been possible without directed fundamental research in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing from ARPA from 1956-1974. 

We hope that in the future the success of a professor will not only be measured by the length of their publication list, or the number of graduate students, but on their ability to listen to the needs of their stakeholders: the taxpayers.

1 comment:

Michael Trenholm-Boyle said...

I am worried that there is too much bias in funding structures in favour of easily commercializable research to the detriment and exclusion of basic research in areas which have no path to commercialization in the foreseeable future. Just think: what if Gallileo's patrons told him he couldn't use their funding to help him study the moons of Jupiter because it had no industrial application?

We could consider tapping into the so-called "1%" to get them to fund more into basic research, but its already a stretch to get them to adequately fund applied science and humanitarian outreach.

For this reason we rely on governments to be the modern day equivalents of Gallileo's patrons and to be biased n granting funds only as needed to ensure there is a healthy spectrum of scientific investigation happening across all sectors of society.