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Last bastion of dirigisme? A new book examines science policy in Canada.

Public Science, Private Interests: Culture and Commerce in Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence Janet Atkinson-Grosjean University of Toronto Press 269 pages, hardcover ISBN-10: 0802080057 ISBN-13: 9780802080059

In 1954, Jonas Salk announced that he had developed a vaccine for polio at the University of Pittsburgh. In a television interview, he was asked why he had not taken out a patent on an invention clearly worth millions. Salk replied, "How can you patent the sun?"

How far we have come! In an age when researchers race to map and patent the entire human genome, Salk's commitment to an open conception of science seems almost quaint, a reminder of another time and another world. We have witnessed a cultural revolution in the sciences, and in Canada the federal government has been central to the transition.

In Public Science, Private Interests: Culture and Commerce in Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence Janet Atkinson-Grosjean has provided us with an interesting glimpse into Canadian science policy, using as her lens the Networks of Centres of Excellence. The introduction of NCEs in 1988 represented, in her opinion, "the most dramatic change in Canadian science policy since the National Research Council was established in 1916." The federal program called for a web of national research networks--research institutes without walls--linking researchers at universities and research labs across the country. Researchers within the networks would not only conduct fundamental research but also partner with the private sector to target high-potential fields and develop commercial applications of the new knowledge they generated. In 1988, 15 networks were launched and, today, 24 networks are receiving support (the current list is available at <>).

Enthusiasm for centres of excellence was an international phenomenon in the late 20th century, a trend that Atkinson-Grosjean attributes to the ascendancy of neo-liberal ideology. While neo-liberal ideas were undoubtedly part of the mix, the origins of the trend were broader and deeper than she suggests. For governments around the world, a focus on innovation reflected a sea change in the goals and instruments of economic policy, especially industrial policy. The traditional tools that governments had long deployed to protect and shape their economies--tariffs and related non-tariff barriers, subsidies and regulations--were falling away, fatally constrained by international trade agreements and growing skepticism about their effectiveness. Governments everywhere needed new rationales and new instruments. Into this void flowed the "new growth theory." In the 1980s and 1990s, a new theory of the determinants of economic growth displaced neo-classical theory from the leading edge of macroeconomics. According to the new doctrine, the key to economic growth in the long run is technological innovation, making knowledge accumulation and transmission central concerns of modern industrial policy.

In Canada, the federal government quickly absorbed this new doctrine, rolling out an innovation strategy designed to enhance scientific research and technology on one hand, and high-level skills and human capital on the other. NCEs emerged as an integral part of this strategy. The specific form of the centres reflected Canadian realities. While some countries might create centres of excellence by building a critical mass of researchers in one place, such hard choices elude us. The idea of a network of centres of excellence flowed from Canadian geography and federalism, with the attendant political pressures to spread the benefits across regions and language communities. In addition, the central role of public funding reflected the longstanding comparative weakness of private sector expenditures on R&D in this country.

In effect, NCEs represented an effort to harness public science to the needs of the private economy. For universities and the scientific community, this new political embrace was, initially at least, an uneasy one. The federal strategy held glittering prospects for higher status in policy circles and new resources for chronically under-funded laboratories. But it was also designed to steer science in new directions, shifting priority toward economically relevant research and its translation into commercial applications.

The federal strategy generated tensions. At a superficial level, the struggles were over institutional control. NCEs were designed to float above the universities, providing greater autonomy from the normal constraints of academic life. Not surprisingly, the universities, which had to provide a lot of the infrastructure and pay the salaries of university researchers, were frustrated by the structure. They also entered into a struggle for control of the intellectual property generated by the networks, a struggle that--by Atkinson-Grosjean's accounting at least--they seem to have won.

At a deeper level, however, the tensions generated by the federal strategy were cultural, not institutional. Under the traditional model of open science, the dominant policy regime of the post-war decades, governments supported basic research with public funds; scientists quickly released their findings, which became a form of common property, and private corporations then carried out the developmental work required to transform scientific results into commercial products. This was the world of Jonas Salk. Science was an open enterprise in which everyone could participate and a collective enterprise in which everyone was expected to share results. Basic research was esteemed above all, and the developmental work required for commercial application was seen as less challenging and less exciting. Real reputations were made in basic science, and the highest rewards were the recognition of one's peers and the prestige and honours that flowed to discoverers working at the edge of their disciplines.

The NCE program was designed to engineer a change in this culture. While employing a dual discourse of research excellence and commercial relevance, the program specifications made clear that funding was contingent on partnerships with industry and the potential for market applications. In this new world of entrepreneurial science, scientists and their universities regularly seek to patent their results, generating pressures for greater secrecy about research agendas and delays in publication until patents have been obtained. The ideal of openness and the public interest can be further weakened by complex contractual relationships between universities and private corporations, as we have seen in medical research at the University of Toronto and elsewhere. The transition to entrepreneurial science also generates a new breed of researcher, the entrepreneurial scientist, whose rewards flow not only from peer recognition but also from the personal financial benefits of the marketplace, creating a world replete with potential conflicts of interest that must be managed with care.

Atkinson-Grosjean explores the implications of this cultural transition by tracking carefully one of the first networks, the Canadian Genetic Diseases Network, a field in which all of the issues are posed in a pointed fashion. Her book takes us through three competitions for successive periods of funding support. In the first competition, the selection criteria gave the greatest weight to basic science, and the advisory committee recommending which applicants to fund was clearly impressed by the quality of the pure science promised by CGDN. In the second competition, however, the federal officials rebalanced the criteria to give greater weight to partnerships with industry and technology exploitation. In its application for renewal, CGDN dutifully shifted its focus to more "profitable" diseases, which affect a larger portion of the population and are of greater interest to large pharmaceutical corporations. In launching the third competition, the government announced that its support to any network would be capped at 14 years, meaning that a third phase of support would be the last for CGDN. The network shifted even more dramatically toward an entrepreneurial model. It soon adopted a formal corporate structure, appointed professional entrepreneurs in leadership positions, and developed a laser-like focus on commercial applications and funding. At each stage, Atkinson-Grosjean records the slow fading of the culture of openness and collegiality that had initially characterized CGDN meetings.

What conclusions should we draw about NCEs? Two questions seem critical. First, was the program successful in remaking the culture of science in Canada? Second, did the NCE program succeed in enhancing scientific innovation and its contribution to economic growth?

In response to the first question, Atkinson-Grosjean argues that the NCEs were successful in challenging the exalted status of basic research and enhancing the legitimacy of research dedicated to translating new results into commercial applications. "Within the network," she writes, "much of the stigma was removed from translational research, largely making it legitimate for scientists to maintain multiple roles." Later, she adds, "translational research is now an accepted part of the clinical practice and drives many funding decisions in the health sciences." Certainly, patents and spin-off companies are now used routinely by researchers and universities in an effort to capitalize on their own research. How much of this can be attributed to the NCE program is unclear, as other forces were also driving the commercialization of university research in this period, including the weakness of basic university funding. Nevertheless, Atkinson-Grosjean is undoubtedly right that the NCEs helped legitimatize the trend.

Yet the story she tells also underscores the limits of the NCE as a tool of deeper cultural change, most obviously in her discussion of the balance between traditional scientists, whom she labels "settlers," and more entrepreneurial scientists, whom she dubs "merchants." The key point here is mentioned almost in passing. The networks never became the primary funding source for most researchers in them. With the exception of the network leaders, participants typically drew approximately 15 to 20 percent of their total research funding from the NCE program. This is hardly enough to alter a scientist's research agenda, let alone his or her personal conception of the fundamental role of science in society. In the end, Atkinson-Grosjean informally estimates that the ratio of settlers to merchants in CGDN was about 80:20, evidence of the community's capacity "to resist the state's best attempts at recalibration; funding-related cultural shifts seem superficial at best. These findings suggest that intrinsic values are not 'up for grabs.'"

What about the NCEs' contribution to scientific innovation and its impact on the Canadian economy? Here the answer is even more muted. On the one hand, Atkinson-Grosjean argues that CGDN enhanced the quality of molecular biology in Canada. Until the 1980s, the field was highly fragmented, populated with solitary researchers in small laboratories conducting small-scale experiments. Interactions were limited, and those linkages that did exist tended to flow between north and south. With CGDN, Canadian biologists were linked in an east-west network, and were able to aspire to the benefits of big science, with joint "core facilities" providing technological support that would not otherwise have been available to many participants.

On the other hand, Atkinson-Grosjean concedes that it is impossible to tease out the real value-added of the NCE approach, compared, for example, with a strategy of increasing the budgets of the traditional granting programs by a similar amount. No one knows whether CGDN produced more discoveries, patents and publications than would otherwise have emerged, but she does quote one of the founding scientists as admitting "probably not." Moreover, there is very little assessment of the program's contribution to productivity growth in the Canadian economy.

We are thus left with a mixed report card of the NCEs, both as a tool of cultural change and as a tool of scientific innovation. Such qualitative assessments--with their tendency to "on the one hand and the other hand"--provide lots of nuance. But they also leave considerable uncertainty. To be fair, this is hardly unusual in the world of policy analysis. Yet the reader is left hungry for more. We learn little about wider assessments of the NCE program, and the ways in which it has been adapted in recent years. It is unfortunate that the story told by a book published in 2006 actually stops in 2001.

One issue not tackled in depth is whether the model of the NCE is appropriate for disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, where the prospects for commercialization are much lower. In the first round of the NCE program, none of the social science proposals was supported by the advisory committee. A network on aging was funded on direction from above, but funds had to come from the research council budgets, not the NCE program. Clearly, the original criteria made it very difficult for social science proposals to survive. However, something has changed, as the current list of NCEs includes several social science projects. Moreover, non-profit organizations as well as commercial enterprises qualify as partners. All of this suggests a broadening of the terms of the program. One senses a process of normalization of NCEs within the context of the granting councils, with an expansion of the concept of relevance to incorporate social and policy contributions. All this makes for a more inclusive program, which has much to say for it in terms of the wider research communities. But one does wonder whether NCEs are increasingly detached from their intellectual underpinnings in new growth theory. If so, what are the implications for sustained political support?

Looking back on the story of cultural change told so well by Atkinson-Grosjean, one is struck that the knowledge sector has been one of the last bastions of dirigisme in the Canadian policy world. The concept of "planning" has faded from the intellectual framework of even the senior policy makers. Politicians and bureaucrats conceded long ago that governments should not try to use industrial policy to pick winners and losers. "Governments can't pick winners, but losers can certainly pick governments," ran the unkind aphorism. Lapses from the self-denying ordinance do occur, of course, even in more traditional forms of industrial policy. But the general mantra has been that governments should set framework policies and leave the rest to the millions of independent decisions that constitute the market.

Given this larger intellectual context, it is noteworthy that officials felt comfortable seeking to reshape the complex world of science. The NCE program went well beyond the nostrums of steering and rowing through which theorists of the new public management sought to redesign the delivery of public services. The NCE program aimed not only to pick high-priority research areas, but also to shape the basic purposes of science and the organizational framework through which it is conducted. In an era characterized by a deep skepticism about the capacity of the state to plan complex matters and to lead social change, a fuller evaluation of NCEs would seem especially relevant. Atkinson- Grosjean has started us along this road, and whets the appetite for more.

Keith Banting holds the Queen's Research Chair in Public Policy at Queen's University. He was a member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council from 1986 to 1992 and vice-president of the council from 1990 to 1992.
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Title Annotation:Public Science, Private Intersts: Culture and Commerce in Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence
Author:Banting, Keith
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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