One of the consequences of returning to a city after a prolonged absense is that a great many people are suddenly willing to buy lunch for you. I have, during the last two weeks, dined with everyone of my family members, several friends, and no fewer than three former professors.
It was with one such professor that I went to lunch two days ago. The gentleman in question was never a full-time employee of the university, but rather a sessional instructor who occasionally collaborated on research with members of the physics faculty; his main job was at the National Research Council, a government-funded body charged with undertaking fundamental research in the fields of science and engineering. Like all government programs*, it has been left to rot under the inept ministrations of the Stephen Harper regime. Earlier this year, Harper appointed a Calgary businessman with no actual scientific experience to take over the NRC. This fellow, John McDougall, quickly demonstrated himself to be chiefly concerned with the market applications of research; the translation being that, if a field of science cannot be easily commercialized, it is not worth financing.
Now, it goes without saying that I disagree with the reasoning behind this pronouncement for a number of reasons. First of all, I think it completely fails to understand what research is. The whole point of undertaking research is that you can’t know before hand which avenues will bare fruit! Secondly, it assumes that commercial applications of discoveries will be immediately obvious, whereas even a cursory glance at history will immediately show that this is demonstrably not the case**: who among the founders of quantum mechanics, do you suppose, could have forseen its applications in modern technology? Thirdly, it dismisses the idea of science, knowledge, and learning for their own sakes- I for one would not want to live in a world where everything is expected to have a manifest functional value, as you could kiss art, literature, music, any but the very poorest dregs of language, and almost all of the humanities goodbye as well. Fourthly, even accepting that there are avenues of scientific exploration that have obvious commercial applications (genetic engineering leaps to mind), surely we can expect businesses themselves to capitalize upon them with very minimal help from the government; why are we wasting tax money on something that the market should be capable of doing for itself?
My conversation with my former professor, however, has served to convince me that there is yet another reason why this is a terrible policy. Namely, that there are some things which are manifestly valuable, but upon which it is not easy to place a dollar figure- or, at least, which it is not easy to commercialize. Here I am not talking about abstract concepts such as ‘knowledge’ or ‘humanity’, but rather about very tangible, everyday questions such as ‘whether or not large chunks of the population are going to die off in the near future.’ You see, my former professor does not research the sorts of pie-in-the-sky questions to which the physics section of this blog is largely given over; rather, he made his living by mathematically modelling the spread of infectious diseases through a population- and proposing ways to halt this spread. This, apparently, is the sort of thing which the Harper Government, in its ‘wisdom,’ does not think is worth funding.
One can only suppose, of course, that public health research from which expensive new drugs could be patented would be worthy of federal funding, but honestly: which do you suppose would save more lives?
*With the notable exception of the military, of course.
**Of course, selon Mr. Harper’s appointee: “History is an anchor that ties us to the past rather than a sail that
catches the wind to power us forward,” showing that he is arguably historically and philosophically illiterate as well as scientifically so.