The hope is to excel in the “New Economy” and reap the benefits of an improved standard of living and quality of life.
I think that this is naïve and
misguided. At best, these policies will simply maintain the status
quo, and at worst, they will destroy our universities and mortgage our
children’s future. In short, they are doomed to have exactly the
opposite effect of that intended.
I fail to see how doing what our
competitors are doing will achieve anything more than maintain the status
quo. To advance our position, it is not sufficient to change what
we were doing yesterday. We need to improve on what our competitors will
be doing tomorrow. We are miles away from doing so, and that should
be a national concern.
But the moment one’s research funding is dependent on generating proprietary intellectual property for their corporate sponsor or for funding their university, what is the natural outcome? They will stop talking to others about their work. They will stop sharing, the collective intelligence will be destroyed, and previous colleagues will be rendered competitors.
In one fell swoop policy intended
to stimulate scientific and intellectual growth is destroying one of the
main mechanisms that make us smart. The effects are devastating,
and evident at every academic conference that I attend.
Current policy is intended to provide the catalyst for the next generation of like successes. The only problem is this: if today’s policies had of been in place in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Canadian computer graphics industry would never have materialized!
The reason for this is simple. Under current policy, key funding criteria include demonstrating commercial potential and having the support of an industrial partner. Yet, if you ask anyone involved in the field at the time, those doing “serious” research viewed Computer Graphics at best as quaint, and more often than not, as wasting valuable computer resources and money “playing” with animation and images. We survived because there was enough slack in the system to fund curiosity-driven research and fringe projects; conditions that are as long-gone as they are needed to stimulate a healthy research environment.
What engines of our future economy
are not being developed today because their implications or potential are
not understood? Can our society really afford to “save” money by not adequately
But the cost is a movement away from curiosity-driven research at the academy, and a disincentive for corporations to undertake applied research on their own.
Neither of these consequences is
healthy in the long-term. In contrast to current policy, I would
argue that when the commercial potential of research is recognized, funding
at the academy should stop, and responsibility for it should be assumed
by the private sector.
This would reinvigorate the healthy open exchange of ideas in the academy, and at the same time develop a solid foundation of industrial research in Canada (something that is sorely missing, with precious few exceptions).
Ultimately, technology is a social
prosthesis. An understanding of people, the domain of social sciences and
the arts, is fundamental to success. Yet, rather than leveraging
this resource of the university, we are strangling it, and placing the
bulk of our resources in the technology disciplines, just like every other
jurisdiction in the western world. What a way to compete!
The more relevant the skills of an academic, the more likely they will make the move. The result is that the university loses those most qualified to teach the skills most needed by industry. Yes, one company might benefit. But what is the return on this compared to the multiplier that would otherwise accrue if that professor taught 10 students a year to carry those skills out into the economy?
This is a bad deal by any accounting
method, yet this is precisely what current policy is fostering.
Consider genetically modified foods, one of the most important and controversial issues confronting every Canadian.
To whom can the citizen go to for an objective opinion? Who can be trusted when virtually every university biology department, and even the National Research Council, depends financially on the very companies that want to develop this technology?
By “saving” the taxpayer the expense
of funding research, governments have taken away the one source where citizens
might have otherwise gotten trustworthy advice. In so doing they
have sold short the very people who they were elected to serve.
So are our businesses. These need to be healthy in order to generate the wealth that will support the quality of life to which Canadians aspire.
Both have a role to play in the new
economy, and there needs to be a strong partnership between the two.
But what is the nature of this partnership? As it stands, the answer
implicit in current policy is going to leave a sorry legacy for our children.
Personally, I think that we can do better.