Anti-science Conservatives? It sure looks that way judging by research funding

What is going on with this Conservative government’s seeming disregard for investment in scientific research that has the goal of developing knowledge and not products?

It spends money on specific projects — say agricultural research clusters or last week’s industry praised investment in a five-year wheat research project — but increasingly little on so called “knowledge science” or “what-if” science that creates the basis for the inventions of the future.

It is all about the short-term, the foreseeable bottom line.

Several weeks ago, science and technology minister Gary Goodyear announced a new business-friendly model for the National Research Council. The focus will be on “industrial research, new growth and business development,” he said.

“If Canada is going to compete internationally, we must do it through new ideas, new products and opening new markets,” the lead cabinet science minister said in Ottawa. “The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian business. It will be customer pull.”

Bring in the entrepreneurs who want some taxpayer support to develop products they can then sell for a profit.

Last year, the Natural Science and Research Council of Canada dropped agriculture as one of its core funding priorities.

In April, Canada pulled out of a United Nations research project on dealing with drought, complaining the $300,000 spent each year was not going to practical results-oriented research but meandering bureaucracy.

Several weeks ago in a raft of notices to Agriculture Canada employees whose jobs could be terminated in the interests of “efficiency” and budget cutting, researchers and support staff were particularly targeted.

The government attitude seems to be that if research can’t turn around a product or an improved product that can be commercialized within a few years, tough luck.

Given the fact that the prairie canola and pulse industries are now multi-billion dollar sectors because of years of research that often seemed to be headed nowhere, this is shortsighted thinking.

In many ways Canada’s agriculture now is thriving on the backs of scientific breakthroughs made decades ago.

Where are the breakthroughs now that aren’t about to be patented by a company that may have public support but will reap the benefits?

Farm leaders, researchers and international observers have raised troubling questions about the government’s attitude to long-term basic science.

“If government doesn’t do it, who will do it?” Roger Beachy of the Saskatoon-based Global Institute for Food Security recently asked.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture vice-president Debra Pretty-Straathof said last week the Agriculture Canada cuts “signal shaky ground for Canadian research innovations.”

It seems like an obvious point, but maybe not among the powers that be.

They won’t be around when Canada is importing basic research results in future decades from countries still investing now.

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