Disgruntled researchers need to put money comparison where their mouth is

A wise scientist once remarked that the important moments in his laboratory were not when an experiment produced a result he expected and that confirmed his scientific thesis.

It was when the results came back and he thought, “that can’t be right.”

The history of invention, of exploration, of scientific advancement has always depended on someone musing, I wonder what would happen if I did this?

Nineteenth century Austrian scientist and monk Gregor Mendel would not have discovered the rudimentary threads of modern genetics if he had not mucked around in his pea garden over the years looking for — who knows what — and discovered the transmission of traits between generations.

University researchers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba likely would not have discovered the benefits of converting rapeseed to canola if there had not been long-term money to conduct “what if” research.

So this leads to the current perplexing debate about the state of agricultural research funding in Canada.

A persistent lobby of farm groups, scientists and academics insists that current government funding levels for basic long-term research have never recovered from Liberal cuts in 1995.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz insists they are wrong.

“We’ve gone back and analyzed our research,” he said after the recent federal budget that suggested more research and science cuts.

“There’s concern that we’re not spending as much. We certainly are. We’re outspending 1994 levels even with inflation figured in.”

His critics snort at the suggestion, but here’s the kicker: neither side can or does provide the numbers to back up their case.

Ritz repeats the statement without supporting numbers and past calls to Agriculture Canada produce the explanation that because the definition of research has changed, it is impossible to compare 1994 spending with 2012.

Critics more or less accept that assertion.

“There’s no data to support (the claim of under-funding compared to 1994), but certainly the stories we hear from people in the know is that it hasn’t returned to where it once was,” University of Guelph professor John Cranfield said at an Ottawa conference last week.

How can it be that there is not comparable data?

Any farmer worth his or her record-keeping salt would be able to delve into the files and compare expenditures on inputs in 1994 compared to 2011.

How is it possible that the federal government, with financial records that go back to 1867, cannot produce a comparison about how much public money was invested in long-term research in 1994 compared to now?

If the current government attitude is that short-term product-oriented research is as important as “what if” research, then they should say that and produce the numbers breakdown.

If the critics really believe that is shortsighted and a roadmap to falling behind, they should crunch the numbers and make the argument.

The numbers are out there. Interpretation can follow.

They should square off and demand: “show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”

Then the debate would become more sensible for those of us outside.

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