Buxton, W. (2001).  The Cost of Saving Money:  The Folly of Research Funding Policy in Canada.  Research Money. Published in 2 installments, March 5th & March 19th, respectively.


The Cost of Saving Money:

The Folly of Research Funding Policy in Canada

William Buxton
Chief Scientist
Alias|Wavefront Inc.
Toronto, Canada


Research funding in Canada is being transformed by cutbacks in public funding, a bias towards technology disciplines, pressure for academic research to become more self funding by licensing intellectual property, and a very strong bias towards applied research which is co-funded by commercial concerns.

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.

Keeping up With the Joneses

Even a superficial examination will show that all of our competitors also want to “Recreate the Silicon Valley Miracle” and profit from the “New Economy.”  If we compare Canadian initiatives with those of our competitors, we come out somewhere in the middle.

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.

Death of Community

The key to much, if not most, academic excellence is what has always been known as the “community of scholars.”  That is to say, scholars and scientists reach the top of their field not only because they work hard and are smart individuals, but because they have smart friends and colleagues with whom they share and grow knowledge, and these people are based all over the world.

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.

Death of a Poster Child

I work in the computer graphics industry, one of Canada’s success stories. The roots of this high-tech “poster-child” were largely founded on work from the National Research Council in Ottawa, the National Film Board in Montreal, and research in computer graphics at the Universities of Toronto, Waterloo, and Montreal.

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 funding research?

Be Careful What You Wish For …

Current policy is a raging success in incenting researchers to focus on “applied” problems, to the point where they hold “meet markets” where they try to link up with corporate partners, who will help them qualify for funding.

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).

It’s Not About Technology

Current policy appears blind to the real value of the university.  Yes, Canada needs to be competitive in the new economy.  But does anyone seriously believe that the key to this lies exclusively in technology?

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!

Lose a Good Professor and Gain a Bad Businessman

One of the biggest costs of the commercialization of academic research is the toll that it is taking on teaching and research faculty.  As research proposals evolve into business plans, academic researchers inevitably ask, “Why not just move into the private sector?”

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.

Who Can You Trust?

We have entered an era where the university is confused with a vocational school, or viewed as an incubator for commercial products.  Short sighted policies have led to this. The cost is great.

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.


Our universities are a national trust, and need to be treated as such.  Perhaps we need fewer of them, and higher standards.  But they are a trust, nevertheless.

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.