Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The end for NRC

Well it looks the end for NRC is now publically announced: "Major changes that will shift the focus of the National Research Council from basic science towards more business-friendly research betray a serious misunderstanding of scientific progress, critics of the say.
“I’m not convinced that we have a government that understands how science works, and understands the value of it. They look at it as something you can pick off the shelf,” Carleton University Prof. John Stone said.
“If you don’t do basic research, you’re basically eating away at your scientific capital. You need basic research, it’s often … the foundation on which applied work is done.”"

A must read: "At the bottom of the Canadian Royal Coat of Arms is our national motto: A mari usque ad mare — from sea to sea. As the Conservative government introduces so-called “business friendly” changes to the National Research Council (NRC), the country’s top research and development organization, that motto might be in need of revision.
Might I suggest the following: Efficiency, Productivity and Shortsightedness? The new mantra will fit well with a government and a council who have forgotten the scientific and social value of the freedom of creativity, and who through the pursuit of technocratic narrow-mindedness will do a disservice to both Canadians and industry in the long run.
Naturally, the NRC should aim to serve the long-term well being of Canadians, rather than funding business solutions for companies who could pay for those solutions themselves. Corporate welfare is one potential danger of these changes, though it’s not the most hazardous potential outcome. There are essential partnership opportunities between government and industry. After all, the obscure territory between private and public goods is a minefield; quite often advances in industry serve the country and the world, and public-private endeavours often produce benefits that neither sector could achieve on its own.
The disconcerting bit of these changes isn’t that industry now seems to be in charge of the NRC; such a claim is probably overstated. The problem with this approach is that it will be, contrary to government expectations, less effective at serving Canadians. The government has directed the council to focus on practical applications suited to industry — applications that will produce results for clients. Council president John McDougall has gone as far as to suggest that the council “will measure our success by the success of our clients.” But that’s not how science works best.
The true foolishness of this new approach will only become clear down the road. As the government intervenes, heavy-handed, in the affairs of scientists — a government with a dismal record on this front — and introduces the insidious and vague language of clients, producers, efficiency and synergy into the mandate of the NRC, it defines what’s good for Canada as what’s good for business and focuses on short-term marketability over long-term breakthroughs.
Such corporate-speak, recognized by all and understood by few, conjures up images of pristine laboratories with bubbling beakers of substances unknown to all but the greatest minds and assembly lines quickly and reliably sending goods out to the market as grey-haired patricians shake hands in the foreground while wearing hard hats. Although the images are alluring, what they obscure is what’s lost in the gold rush to productivity, growth, job creation and international competitiveness: a commitment to creativity and freedom, two things that have consistently served humankind.
More than 300 years ago, with no industry advancements in mind, Isaac Newton inserted needles into his own eye socket to test Descartes’ theory of light. He was challenged and inspired by not only the courageous career of the French philosopher, but also by the potentially suicidal work of Galileo, who risked both his life and by some accounts his mortal soul while defending heliocentrism. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity while scribbling away at a desk in the Swiss Patent Office, not too bothered by the then-absent applicability of his research. Later in the same century, the eccentric Steve Jobs obsessed over design and usability, experimenting freely on technologies with dubious potential returns or uses.
What drove these world-historical minds, and scores of others, wasn’t a desire for maximal productivity, industry efficiency, or global competitiveness — even if some of these outcomes were eventually achieved. What fuelled the engines of their astounding minds were creativity and the space and freedom to let their imagination wander freely, going where it may, and finding what it might. What they discovered changed the course of history, and we continue to benefit from their work.
Ultimately, the government’s role in research should be to fund the best minds, to give them the freedom to let their ingenuity and resourcefulness uncover the secrets of the universe; to provide broad oversight while ensuring ethical standards are maintained; and to fill in the gaps between private interests and the public good. To do otherwise would be to do a disservice to the people of Canada in the long run. Perhaps the government would be best served if it took a page from its own philosophical playbook and kept government intervention to a minimum."

Another good read: "The National Research Council’s “new” focus on commercial applied science, as opposed to pure science, may look sensible enough on its face, given the federal agency’s $900-million annual budget and the limping economy.
Surely there are enough wild-haired scientists with Buddy Holly glasses doing blue-sky research in Canadian universities; and surely the NRC could put more brainpower at the disposal of industry? Never mind trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Get cracking on the next BlackBerry.
But this is one time the Conservatives would have been cleverer to execute their reforms quietly — secretively, if you will — rather than bellowing them to the rooftops, as Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear did Tuesday. For, as is increasingly the case in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, context and backstory are everything. To the extent ordinary Canadians pay attention at all to the continuing transformation of the NRC, the government spin may hurt rather than help it. And that’s assuming the changes are good, fundamentally — which many would argue they are not.
Simply put, the messaging plays into the solidifying opposition narrative that the Conservatives are anti-intellectual, anti-scientific gnomes, bent on transforming Canada into a nation of soul-less econo-bots.
Appearing alongside NRC president John McDougall, Goodyear waxed enthusiastic about the re-tooling of the NRC as a servant of business. “If Canada is going to continue to compete internationally, we must do it through new ideas, new products and opening new markets,” the minister said. “The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull.”
This direction is in keeping, to a point, with recommendations of the Jenkins review in 2011. Software executive Tom Jenkins’s panel urged the government to establish a new Industrial Research and Innovation Council that would be tailored to help business, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises. Though the NRC retains its old name, it de facto now becomes that council. Business “stakeholders,” will be pleased — at least initially.
The pitfalls will emerge when bureaucrats begin sifting through the requests they’re likely to receive — Goodyear cast a wide net Tuesday, inviting every business in Canada, regardless of size, to henceforth consider the NRC as a kind of benevolent, wise helper, like Q in the James Bond films — and toss many in the trash.
Who will choose the recipients of the NRC’s largesse? This is a large, powerful agency, with 4,000 employees and an annual budget of close to a billion dollars. It operates 50 research facilities nationwide. Presumably federal research support will make the difference between success and failure for many companies. The potential for noses to get rubbed out of joint, let alone cronyism and abuse, is huge. Yet the minister and the NRC president were both very vague about the logistics of how it will work. Are companies to apply for help, like artists applying for a Canada Council grant?

The NRC has always been primarily an applied science body – but one whose work was led by scientists. Its notable historical successes, noted in the minister’s media kit, include the invention of the pacemaker (1940s), canola (1950s), computer animation (1970s) and the space shuttle’s Canadarm (1980s). That begs this question: Can the system that produced these innovations be so fundamentally flawed, that it needs to be reinvented?

One benefit of paying smart people to invent and develop technologies they think will be useful, as opposed to business managers requesting help with their research and NRC staff having to choose among these requests, is simplicity. Another benefit of pure research, obviously, is that scientists bent on furthering knowledge have often reached breakthroughs that only later proved to have commercial applications. I’m thinking of Crick and Watson and their discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. There are other examples too numerous to mention.
But there’s a greater risk in this for the Conservatives: That is, that their habit of recasting every possible area of government along absolutely utilitarian lines, as they see them, is getting old. Whether it’s foreign aid, aboriginal affairs, the environment or science, the Conservative response is the same: Jobs, jobs, jobs. Is it a matter of time until questions of justice, too, will be cast in purely economic terms? Murder is terrible. Think of the impact on GDP.
The Harper Conservatives have made a virtue of being hard-focused on the economy. They’ve been so good at it for so long that the opposition parties have adopted much of their focus. They should remember, though, that universal adoption of any value set is two-edged: It comes to be viewed as a given. Canadians will soon be asking, if they’re not already: “We know you’re focused on the economy. So is everyone else. What else you got?”
Right, wrong or indifferent, the Conservatives increasingly need an answer. The pending cabinet shuffle, presumably, is where it will be found."

Science Is in Deep Trouble: "Today Conservative incompetence met Conservative narrow-mindedness.
The re-launch of the National Research Council hosted by the M
inister for State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear shows science is in deep trouble in this country. By choosing to shift towards industry-driven applied research at the expense of scientist-driven basic research, the Conservatives continue to undermine scientific progress - and these policies will adversely impact all of us, including the very industry they purport to be servicing.
It is now clear the Minister of State has lost control of this file and his flailing mismanagement threatens to impede the growth of Canada's knowledge economy. Not only has laying off scores of top NRC researchers severely damaged morale within the organization, NRC production peer-review and patent production has severely dropped since Conservative tinkering began. Not only does the government have an alarming track record of muzzling its own scientists and stifling dissent, by shutting the door on basic scientific research at the NRC that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs, the Conservatives' short-sighted approach will in fact hurt Canada's longer-term economic growth.
At the re-launch press conference, the Minister of State unveiled what the Prime Minister's Office deems "the most significant transformation to the NRC in 100 years" - a shift away from discovery science and towards what industry deems as commercially viable. Before today, the National Research Council was still Canada's most venerable scientific research institution.
However the Minister of State seems to forget that the NRC's greatest resource is not buildings or equipment, but its people. The advancement of science is the NRC's raison d'être and the scientists who make up the NRC its beating heart. But to look inside the NRC now is to see an organization with a devastated morale: internal polling documents show only 2% strongly agree that the leaders of the NRC are making the right decisions for the success of the organization. In contrast, 43% strongly disagreed.
It's not difficult to see where that dissatisfaction comes from.
First, the Conservatives have a penchant for secrecy, and the shadowy NRC redirection into what Minister Goodyear has in the past called a "1-800... concierge service" has left not just parliamentarians and the press in the dark, but the scientists themselves. Meanwhile, all around them, colleagues receive pink slips and labs shut down.
Throughout this process, the Conservatives continue to refuse to table any plan, mission statement, goals, objectives, or metrics by which to measure success or failure. This has taken place internally as well. In the midst of this major transformation no one thought to ask the NRC scientists themselves where they envisioned the future of their organization.
Second, the Conservatives simply dislike those who conduct basic research. Today Minister Goodyear and the NRC President described those who would be heroes in other countries as only "following their own interests," and being too "introverted" and "insular." Aside from being an insult to the hearth of scientific innovation and the people who dedicate their lives to furthering the frontiers of knowledge, it also brazenly displays an ignorance of how revolutionary, ground-breaking advancements are actually made - through fundamental research.
Inevitably, these secret changes, layoffs, and attacks have resulted in lower production from NRC scientists. Since the Conservatives took office, NRC publications have plummeted from 1,991 in 2006 to just 436 in 2012. In the same time, NRC patents have dropped from 53 in 2006 to a mere 3 in 2012. The message this sends to talented early career researchers considering working for the NRC? Apply your skills elsewhere.
Since becoming Official Opposition Critic for Science & Technology, I've heard from and met hundreds of scientists across Canada concerned about the direction this government has taken in regards to scientific freedoms, including the muzzling of scientists, and the gutting of basic research capacity in Canada. I have yet to hear one scientist in this country voice their support for the government's approach. Angus Reid polling suggests 68% of Canadians trust scientists most to decide how public money dedicated to scientific research should be spent. In contrast, only 8% trusted politicians to do the right thing for science. Scientists serve no partisan agenda and their sole cause the advancement of the frontiers of knowledge for all of us - but under this government, being an independent voice that speaks to the evidence, and not to ideology, makes you a threat.
The dissonant policies betray this Conservative government's lack of understanding about how scientific advancements actually take place. The undermining of scientific freedoms, systematic defunding of basic research capacity and environmental research, and dismantling of the NRC constitute attacks on the foundations of science in Canada. It is disappointing that despite sustained outcry from the scientific community, the Conservatives still fail to grasp the adverse, concrete impacts of their decisions on innovation and growth. Despite this, and recognizing the stakes, we must all continue our push to put our country back on the right track.
The NDP stands up for science and researchers in Canada. Unlike the Conservatives, we realize that in order for Canada to be home for groundbreaking revolutions in science, scientific researchers must be able to depend upon stable long-term funding. At our recent NDP policy convention we passed a motion to consult widely with scientists, researchers, businesses, postsecondary institutions, and provincial, territorial, and First Nations leaders to develop a Made in Canada National Science Strategy and that we would move to increase the percentage of GDP invested by the public and private sectors in research and development (GERD) to make Canada more competitive with other global leading countries such as the United States.
That is the kind of commitment to science Canadians want and it is the type of commitment we need if we are going to grow our knowledge economy."

Canada to Convert NRC Into 'Toolbox' for Industry: "After 2 years of flogging the need to transform Canada's National Research Council (NRC) into a toolbox for industry, the Conservative government announced today that the 97-year-old agency is "open for business" under its new philosophy.
"If Canada is going to continue to compete internationally, we must do it through new ideas, new products, and opening new markets. In other words, through innovation," Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear told a press conference in Ottawa. "The NRC will now focus on the identified research needs of Canadian businesses. It will be customer pull."
NRC has for decades been the government's primary in-house performer of research in perceived areas of national need, including radio astronomy and agriculture. Its successes include the pacemaker, canola, the crash position indicator to locate downed airplanes, and the Canadarm, which deploys payloads for the space shuttles and the International Space Station.
Those innovations were the fruits of curiosity-driven research. But under the new policies, NRC scientists will tackle questions raised by individual businesses, while more basic research will be shuffled off to other departments or abandoned altogether.
It's not clear what that change will ultimately mean for the roughly 4000 employees at about 50 facilities across the country with an overall budget of $900 million per year. Goodyear indicated that NRC's existing divisions, which he called "institutional fiefdoms," will be restructured around specific economic sectors. An agency press release notes that there are now 12 "industry-themed entry points" such as "automotive and surface transportation," "security and disruptive technologies," and "human health therapeutics." However, the list also includes one umbrella category called "national science infrastructure."
Opposition leaders wasted no time in condemning the new approach. "Conservative incompetence meets Conservative narrow-mindedness," said New Democrat science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart in a statement. "They don't want research driven by researchers themselves or public funding for science going towards actual scientific advancement. Their short-sided approach will in fact hurt economic growth in the long run because it shuts the door on the long-view fundamental research that truly leads to scientific breakthroughs."
As early as March 2012, Goodyear had deplored NRC as a "loose federation of institutes." He said then that the government expected John McDougall, a petroleum engineer appointed NRC president in 2010, to reshape it into an industry-driven organization. Toward that end, the government provided $67 million in its fiscal 2012 to 2013 blueprint to affect the transformation. Last month's federal budget contained $121 million over 2 years for NRC to "help the growth of innovative businesses in Canada."
Goodyear told today's press conference that the government was implementing the recommendations of an expert panel, led by OpenText chair Tom Jenkins, which had been asked to review federal support of research. Its report envisioned the revamped NRC as "a constellation of large-scale, sectoral collaborative R&D centres involving business, the university sector and the provinces." It said NRC's public policy-related research should be shifted "to the appropriate federal agencies."
McDougall told the press conference that NRC is eager to focus on industrial needs. "Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," he said. "We are committed to being a strong partner for innovation, and … we will measure our success by the success of our clients.""

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