In a move that surprised no-one, the Harper Government finally pulled the trigger on something they’ve been openly hinting was coming. The idea itself, that of focusing public funds solely on research with strong commercial potential, holds up well to a shallow reading, after all, research that can be commercialized should result in new companies, maybe the next Facebook or Microsoft.
Except that commercial research doesn’t need funding from the government, it is in the best interest of business to fund this research. This is the purpose of the plethora of tax credit programs such as SRED, and the whole concept behind the patent. Commercial research is self-successful because it is commercial.
Instead, what the Harper Government has actually done, is defund the research that actually develops new ideas. It’s pure research that lead to computers, the internet, antibiotics, and the human genome project. It’s pure research, research with little commercial potential, that will likely give us cures for cancer, quantum computers or change our understanding of the universe. By applying shallow logic, Harper has once again set Canada back economically, and educationally. And that’s not a good thing.
Markets have limits, they are not the solution to everything. There are many, many examples of things that benefit the public that don’t work well as a market, things like Government, Justice, Education,and Science. For one thing, to be effective a market must have competition, so that if one provider isn’t fulfilling your needs you can go to another. That’s rather difficult to do in the Justice System, in Government, in Science, or in Education.
The perils of running government like a business should be self-obvious. There is no competition to government, if you don’t like the customer service or the product you’ve been given, it’s rather difficult to simply go someplace else. Just ask Jason Kenney. If the role of government is to maximize profits and minimize costs in order to benefit the shareholders, where does the public come in? Following that logic to it’s natural end, you end up with a government that looks remarkably like China or Russia, a strong plutocracy.
If the Justice System was run in order to maximize profit, you would very quickly lose one of the fundamental requirements of a just society: access to justice. As the gap between who can and cannot afford justice widens, you end up with the very definition of a plutocracy. Now, I haven’t even started law school yet, so I don’t really have that long depth of experience to draw on, but I have noticed (anecdotally) just how many folk talk about how unjust the justice system is to the little guy, and I’ve also noticed how all the law schools and legal commentators keep talking about how we need to improve access to justice. Something tells me that seeking the maximized prices the market will bear will not lead us to better justice.
Education is much the same. In any market, you find that the higher the quality of a service (just as in justice), the higher the cost of that service. If we were to turn education into a market, give it a business plan regarding maximized profit and increased return on investment, we will do as the stock market does and focus on short term investments, while simultaneously pricing a lower earning share of the populace out of education. Stratification is a movement away from the ideals of equality enshrined in the charter, and a movement towards a class system.
In a focus on educational ROI, we end up with short-term thinking, with sole focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. While STEM is good, we should not solely educate people in STEM, a free society requires thinkers that can think critically, that can deconstruct the arguments told by leaders and “gurus,” arrive at informed decisions, and recognize what policies are in and are not in one’s best interest: in other words, to be an informed citizen. And then there’s the simple truth, that in our modern information economy, those versed solely in STEM are the new manufacturing class, it’s those who can combine STEM with the arts, aesthetic, and find the intersections with other expertise that create the new companies, the Apples (Jobs combined STEM with Caligraphy to create the Mac, with music to create the iPod), and the Googles (STEM with Library Science for indexing information). The purpose of education is not just to provide skills that one can use to make money, but to serve as an incubator of ideas, ideas that can be turned into future companies, ideas that can cross-pollinate to create a new and unknown hybrid.
So what’s the big deal with focusing the NRC on commercial research? Commercial research is already in the best interest of business, thanks to programs like SRED, businesses already have an incentive to invest in R&D. Yes, they take a risk, but businesses also reap the sole rewards for their R&D payoffs, in the form of government mandated monopolies called patents, where they can recoup losses from other R&D gambles they may have made. And really, the gambles are often not that big of a gamble, since looked at rightly, just about anything is R&D these days.
The problem is that the NRC has always funded the crazy research, the stuff that businesses wouldn’t touch, the stuff that results in real paradigm shifts that are more likely to fail, but more likely to make the real changes to society in the long run. Business doesn’t usually think that long-term, business usually thinks in terms of “how will this keep me in business this year, and keep investors happy over the next quarter?” That’s much shorter term than the benefits to the public 5, 10, 20 years out, the pace that actual science works. The NRC is what funds PhDs that will go on to work at these companies, while teaching at universities and keeping the costs of tuition down. The NRC pays for the piece work that doesn’t generate a new invention but fills in a missing gap in our knowledge of the universe, including disease, genetics, geology, forestry, and agriculture. Knowledge that benefits the public as a whole, but not necessarily any private individual.
That’s the purpose of public funding, filling in the gaps left by the limits of the market, not propping up sagging business models. Yes, private companies support this new shift, after all, they support free money. Just like they support being able to pay substandard wages to temporary foreign works, in a move reminiscent of the wage-slavery of centuries past. It’s in their short-term-best interests. But its not the role of governments and public policy makers to help a few over the short term, its the role of public policy makers to act in a responsible way in the best interests of the public in the long term.
Update 10/5/2013: It appears I’m not the only one with this view. As usual, someone else said it better.