MP Ted Hsu invites Canadian researchers to join him in a Facebook Townhall Meeting dedicated to discussing funding for basic research in Canada.
When: Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 8-10pm EDT
How: Just log in or sign up and click the “LIKE” button for Ted’s page and join the conversation at 8pm EDT
This on-line town hall is to give researchers across the country an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the long term decline in funding for curiosity driven research, and in particular how the 2012 federal budget and its aftermath will affect Canadian research now and in the long term. Cuts to the Research Tools and Instruments grants and the Major Resources Support program of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada have triggered a sharp response in laboratories across the country. This is an opportunity for scientists and engineers to connect with a sitting Member of Parliament, who also happens to be a scientist.
Watch MP Ted Hsu as he addresses the House of Commons over cuts to NSERC’s RTI grants program.
Listen to Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, in an interview on CBC Ottawa radio, responding to researchers concerns on cuts to NSERC’s MRS and RTI programs.
Read MP Ted Hsu’s comments during the budget debate in the House of Commons regarding basic research:
Ted Hsu, Kingston and the Islands, ON
Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act
May 8th, 2012 / 1:35 p.m
Mr. Speaker, the short title of the bill includes long-term prosperity, and so we must discuss in my speech funding for basic research, because that is very important for our future prosperity. There has been a trend toward less and less funding for basic research under the government.
Allow me to take a little bit of time to talk about basic research, what it is and why it is important, because I do not know if it has ever been explained in detail in this House by somebody who has spent many years working on it.
What is basic research? It starts with curiosity. Scientists are human beings. They are passionate people. Why is it that scientists spend so much time and work so hard, like crazy, to try to figure out things and discover things? It is because they have passion. We cannot have scientists who are simply told, “Check one, two and three and see which one works the best”. Scientists work best when they do practical work in the world but they are allowed to step back and ask why things are the way they are and they are given the resources and are encouraged to try to answer that question.
Second, basic research is about finding a complete understanding, making logical sense of the world around us. There is a famous paper entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural World” by physicist Eugene Wigner. In mathematics, in any logical system, any falsehood causes the entire logical edifice to fall apart. If we translate that into the natural world, any little inconsistency or oddity is worth sorting out, because it can lead to dramatic new understanding.
There are some really good examples of that. In the discovery of insulin, people noticed that when the pancreas of a dog was taken out, flies would be attracted to the sugar in the urine of dogs. In the discovery of stem cells, people noticed that there were little clumps of cells of different types on the spleens of irradiated mice. The study of the difference between theoretical models and actual measurements of the neutrino flux from the sun led to a complete changing of our understanding, our model for the physical universe and of the cosmos.
I mention these three examples because they are related to basic research that was done in Canada.
If we look very closely at nature, we find that there is always a lot more going on than we think. Science will surprise us, but after we have worked in research, we get used to that. It is why it is always possible to keep discovering new and important things.
That leads to the last thing about basic research, which is that it gives us hope for fundamental changes that will lead to a better life. It is not just technology or medicine; it is about learning better ways to take care of one another, better ways to communicate and co-operate, cleaner and more enduring ways to be prosperous and also for society to realize the real tangible value of intellectually honest pursuits of the truth. There is that value of basic research that I think is important.
The knowledge that comes out of basic research is like a piece of LEGO, a hard piece of plastic, hard, reliable, but it also has a history of dramatically changing the world. Knowledge is not really in books, journals and PowerPoint slides. It is in the minds of people. Basic research is where we train a lot of our graduate students who have the skills and acquire the knowledge, the experience in the ways of looking at the world and the discipline and rigour of working in scientific research, which they can then carry on and use elsewhere in their careers to benefit all of society.
Basic research produces models. It allows us to explain patterns we observe, and we need models. For example, if we want to sequester carbon dioxide underground, a rather important subject, we have to ask ourselves: Do we understand basic geology enough to be able to model the behaviour of that carbon dioxide underground for thousands of years?
The last thing I would say is that basic research produces unexpected discoveries. The results of basic research are uncertain. By definition they are uncertain, and basic, unexpected discoveries can be game changers. An example of that is basic research that was done in my riding on the ability of dissolved carbon dioxide to dissolve things, which may lead to the elimination of the need for tailings ponds in oil sands projects. Basic research can lead to a lot of unexpected things.
Why is government funding for basic research important? There are three reasons I would like to talk about today. One is that basic research leads to a public good. The market does not put a proper value on research that benefits more than just the people who do the research. There is a public good and that is why the government should get involved.
Second, the market fails when the funder of research has a commercial interest in the outcome. So in that case, sometimes private research creates ethical conflicts, and that is another time when government should step in.
Third, because basic research is intrinsically uncertain, it is intrinsically risky and small companies may not be able to take that risk, and that is another reason why a larger partner like the government should step in.
How do we know that funding for basic research in Canada has declined? We could look at the statistics, showing a decrease in funding for NSERC from $420 million in 2006 to $360 million in this year for basic research. Funding at SSHRC has declined after inflation. If we look at the success of grant applications to CIHR for basic research, it has hit 17% recently and has been going down for about a decade. Many research proposals, rated excellent by their peers, are being rejected and this is not limited to CIHR. We hear statements like, “I am appalled by the lack of the support for fundamental research in this country”. This is coming from top researchers in the country.
There is more money being spent on research, but that is money where an industrial-academic partnership is required and it is not basic research. It is a good thing to fund that, but not at the expense of basic research.
Let me give an example of one cut occurring in basic research that is pretty harmful. It is the cut to NSERC’s research, technology and instrumentation grants program. This is funding that allows researchers to buy medium-sized equipment. As an analogy, instead of cutting from ten carpenters to nine carpenters, it is like keeping the ten carpenters but not letting them buy any tools. That is the problem with the RTI program. That is why researchers are furious about this grants program being cut.
One researcher says:
Without the possibility to maintain and expand these fairly inexpensive research tools, my research will grind to a halt, in turn losing my ability to support the training of highly qualified personnel….
Another researcher says:
The changes to NSERC under the…government have been incredibly destructive, and the RTI cut will be an unmitigated disaster…. If this plan goes forward, then when these essential tools inevitably reach the end of their life, so will my research.
So what could we do besides spend more money? People have been saying we do spend a good amount of money on basic research, but we do not seem to be reaping the economic benefits. What needs to be done already exists out there, and one example of that is something called the GreenCentre in my riding. That is a centre in which there are dedicated scientists who are familiar with the basic research that is done at universities, the discovery centres out there. They look at the discoveries and they are trained to detect or decide on discoveries that may have a commercial application. They talk to their industrial partners and get some advice on which discoveries could be commercialized, and they work to commercialize those discoveries.
So it is not just people in industry saying they have a problem and they want to get the government to pay for a university researcher to figure it out for them. It is unlocking the value that is already there in the research that is at our universities.
In conclusion, we know that businesses do not spend enough on research and development in Canada, and money spent on research does not appear to be affecting rates of innovation and commercialization of research as much as it should. That is because we need a better strategy. We need to not ignore the value of basic research or to cut basic research, but we need to invest our efforts in pushing out the value of the discoveries we already have made in basic research, our world-leading capacity in basic research, and we need to push that out into the marketplace instead of letting everything be driven by industry asking researchers to change what they are doing and simply solve problems of industry.