Recently, answering questions about the future of scientific research in Canada and the ongoing transformation of the National Research Council from a basic science research organization into a facilitator of “commercially relevant” private-sector research, Science Minister Gary Goodyear said the following:
On publishing, scientists—and frankly, professors at university—will tell you they are rewarded for publishing. In my view, publishing, while it’s a great place to be, is like second base. It’s not the home run. When the knowledge that is developed by the scientist, especially if it’s funded by federal dollars in any way, is transferred out of the laboratory into something—a process, an application, a product, a different way of treating patients, etc.—that knowledge transfer completes the cycle.
In doing that, you have the medical isotopes that are necessary for the next-generation diseases, you have customized health care that can diagnose situations much faster, more accurately, and then, of course, treatment protocols that are more effective and less expensive.
The NRC has become the focus of Goodyear’s campaign because it’s the science organization most susceptible to political pressure. NSERC will doubtless be next, to the extent that it hasn’t already been compromised. It’s been suggested in the press that the Conservative government has been inspired to model the NRC after the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, which also focus on applied rather than theoretical science. While this is true, the reason German applied science funding goes to the Fraunhofer Institute is because German pure science funding goes to the Max Planck Institutes. With the NRC going the applied route, Canada simply doesn’t have an equivalent to the Max Planck Institutes.
So far criticism has been restricted to the overtly anti-science agenda of the Harper government, and there is plenty to say on that subject. Even Goodyear’s examples of the promises of applied science are obviously ill-chosen. In Canada, medical isotopes were not produced by a drive to generate commercially relevant research. They were a useful sideline which came up while AECL was brainstorming about things it could do with its already-constructed research reactor. The NRU reactor at Chalk River is one of the leading radioisotope production facilities in the world — and there are only a handful of those anyways — but it won’t remain so for long. It’s decades old, and its sister facilities in other countries are being replaced. NRU isn’t.
But beyond that, there is a broader point to be made here. The distinction between pure and applied science is important — since, typically, industry will fund the latter but not the former, which is why traditionally governments invest in pure science and industry invests in applied science, except, of course, in Harper’s Canada.
There are other important distinctions too, though, mainly between those who see a future for science and those who don’t. The willingness of Canadians to tolerate a government led by anti-science religious zealots is now having its natural and probable consequence: the religious right sees no use in pure science, and therefore, given the choice, the religious right will not fund pure science. This is a fairly simple and logical equation, and one doesn’t need to hunt out conspiracies between government and big business to understand why a creationist like Goodyear sees more value in “customized health care” than he does in, say, probing the frontiers of theoretical physics. All the important questions that theoretical physics could try to research have already been answered, for thousands of years, by a divine author in a much better position to know the answers than mere physicists.
This is aided by the fact that (I suspect, anyways) the majority of non-evangelical Canadians, and certainly the majority of non-evangelical Conservative supporters, simply don’t care about scientific research one way or the other. It’s not that they think, as Goodyear does, that the theory of evolution is anti-Christian bunk. It’s simply that they don’t know much about it and don’t particularly care whether it is or not. Questions like the origins of the universe or of the human species simply don’t hold much interest for them. So when the federal government announces that it’s no longer interested in them either, well, that’s fine with them. If science can’t do anything for them, why should they do anything for science?
There are important evolutionary reasons why, absent a proper education system (which we obviously lack), humanity is saddled with a frustrating surplus of intellectual apathy on the one hand and religious foolishness on the other. I have theories — well, wildly speculative and untestable hypotheses — on these subjects. I’ll return to those. But for the moment, it’s enough to point out that they exist.
To understand the magnitude of the problem posed by traditional religion on the one hand and happy-go-lucky disinterest on the other, it’s worth briefly noting how Canada and other countries are responding to two problems: climate change and antibiotic resistance. There are interesting parallels between these. First, both are direct consequences of huge breakthroughs in applied science. Climate change is the blowback from an ongoing economic revolution which has lifted more people out of poverty more quickly than any other event in human history. Antibiotic resistance is the inevitable consequence of antibiotics — at least for those among us, the Cabinet evidently not among them, who have a layman’s understanding of the theory of evolution.
Second, given the present state of scientific knowledge, we can state with something approaching certainty that both of these processes, unchecked, will have catastrophic consequences for modern societies. The end of antibiotics will mean the end of modern medicine: a century ago, the leading causes of death were bacterial infections and these together with influenza accounted for almost as many deaths per capita as all major causes of death do today. Climate change would, left to run long enough, mean the end of modern, well, everything.
Third, there exist theoretical solutions to both climate change and antibiotic resistance. There are social solutions which we refuse to enact because of the short-term political consequences: we could simply stop using antibiotics and carbon-emitting technologies. There may also be technological solutions, although to find them, we will need to invest trillions of dollars in applied science.
Fourth, we will not arrive at these solutions in time to avoid at least some level of extremely serious harm. Hilariously, but also for good reasons which are readily explained by the theory of evolution (and its mentally defective cousin, economics), there is very little money to be made preventing climate change or inventing the next generation of antibiotic medicine. Such projects are not — to employ the terms now being used to decide upon research at NRC — commercially relevant.
There is, of course, one important difference between the two. The really catastrophic effects of climate change will probably be faced, at the earliest, by my generation’s grandchildren. In contrast, the effects of the end of antibiotics will be felt in our lifetimes. Under ordinary circumstances, you might think this, if nothing else, would spur some action on the problem. You would be wrong, and again, there are very good evolutionary reasons why.
I’ve referred repeatedly to evolution in this post, and not by accident. There’s a reason we fund pure science, or at least used to: because it leads to answers about some of our biggest questions and problems as a species, issues which are so large that they cannot be handled within the narrow confines of the commercial market. Such answers are intrinsically threatening to some sectors of society, the religious right and the apathetic not least among them. Understandably, these sectors respond by trying to eliminate that threat.
And they are succeeding.