When I was still covering the Bruce Carson saga, I pointed out that the damage being done to federally supported scientific institutions across the country was not limited to the takeover of a new clean energy research institute by Conservative insiders Carson and Zoe Addington, but that patterns of Conservative appointments also meant that business representatives rather than academics now controlled the boards at the country’s major research granting organizations, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (SSHRC and NSERC, to those in the know). I briefly touched on the Natural Research Council, and that’s something I’d like to return to.
Last year, the government handed over the NRC to John McDougall, who is a former petroleum engineer. He came over to the NRC from the Alberta Research Council, where for the past decade he has been busy trying to increase private-sector involvement in scientific research. And then he went over to NRC.
In March, McDougall sent around an email to his staff which, naturally, one of them promptly leaked to Postmedia. Along with a lot of colourful language about history being an anchor instead of a wind in the sails, it announced that the NRC’s priorities had to change — fast. Too much attention was being paid to basic science instead of applied technology research that could have a definite project ready to roll out to industry in a definite time frame. 20% of the organization’s $750 million budget was going to be taken out of normal channels and turned over to projects chosen exclusively at the direction of the executive (i.e. himself). Apparently this would eventually grow to 80%. This would be directed to what are variously referred to as “poster child projects” and “flagship programs,” like genetically modified wheat (which they now deny is part of the plan), and a dubious-sounding (though presumably plausible) project to “recycle” carbon emissions using a particular form of algae.
It’s the algae part that caught blogger Media Culpa’s attention. Interestingly, it turns out that McDougall is already quite familiar with the Carbon Algae Recycling System. It’s been pushed for years by Innoventures, a non-profit company that he headed right up until he left Alberta to take over the NRC. Innoventures had a registered lobbyist working in Ottawa to push the algae system. Apparently the opportunity to force the NRC to start taking a look at it too was just too good an opportunity to pass up. It is quite disturbing to see NRC funding revamped simply so that the director can use government science funding on one of his own pet projects.
Now, maybe the algae really work. I’m not entirely sure how, in the long run — like most ideas for “capturing” carbon, it doesn’t seem to solve the problem so much as kick it down the road a little. Innoventures raised ideas about feeding it to animals, using it as fertilizer, etc. I guess the argument would be that we’re using carbon there that would have been simply released into the atmosphere. I can see the logic, although it seems more like an interesting incremental project than anything revolutionary. Still, the main point is that the leaders of public institutions have to be beyond this sort of apparent conflict of interest.
Even without that, I think this new “poster child” program is a terrible idea. The reason we have federal science institutions in the first place is because industry won’t fund projects that don’t have obvious short-term commercial applications, but sometimes those projects are worth doing anyways. The fact that you’re reading this blog at all is proof of that — the Internet is a limited IT research project that has been driven exponentially beyond anything that was initially envisioned. So are antibiotics, to name another useful (and even profitable) example. I could go on, but the point is, there’s a role for basic science. Especially since if you don’t have basic science, the limits of what applied science can do are never going to move much either.
This is not the first highly dubious “reform” made at NRC since McDougall came onboard. Recently the organization privatized its printing press, with the promise that the numerous journals it publishes would remain free of charge to the scientific community. As of January 1, you can now purchase articles at $10 a pop, or buy a subscription “pack” of 17 journals for $12 000. Ludicrously, the new distributor suggests this is a minor cost to pay for the exciting scientific research contained therein, and that scientists won’t notice the difference because their universities and departments will pick up the tab.
That’s true, but what nobody involved seems to be pointing out is the obvious: those university libraries were already spending that $12 000 on something else, namely other books and journals from commercial publishers. It used to be free. Now they’ll either have to cancel other journals, or pass the costs onto the backs of the students in the form of increased tuition and reduced education quality. Thanks a lot, NRC. Way to support science.Tweet