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Should policy concerning basic science be subject to the goals of applied science?

It was difficult to discern any difference of opinion among the panelists, but it was there. By the way, the answer, according to one speaker, is a "qualified" no

In searching for a headline for this article on the science policy forum, it soon became evident that the session's title fit the bill best. The forum was part of the 76th Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) Conference, held in Sherbrooke, QC, May 30 - June 3, 1993.

Sponsored by Syntex Research Canada, the speakers were Nobel laureate John C. Polanyi, FCIC, professor of chemistry, University of Toronto; Ozzie Silverman, director-general, science strategy, Industry, Science and Technology Canada (ISTC); Marek J. Laubitz, director-general, Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences, National Research Council of Canada (NRC). Allen Krantz, MCIC, vice-president and director, Syntex Research Canada, and CSC president was moderator.

Choosing a research topic is not a matter of whim

Polanyi was the lead speaker. "We will agree that there is a real danger of basic science being damaged if it is subject to goals which are not the goals of basic science, by making it subject to goals of a different pursuit." He felt the speakers would agree on the answer: No, basic science should not be subject to the same rules as applied science, but ... It is the but which led to most of the ensuing discussion.

"Basic science is misleadingly called curiosity-oriented science, because curiosity is a matter of taste," Polanyi noted. "Whereas the choice of research topic, far from being a matter of whim, is often the most important decision a scientist makes."

This choice is crucial, not casual, and no different than that a company makes in choosing the development of a new product.

"The risk taker is the best decision maker," Polanyi added. If this is true in the matter of picking products, it is far truer in picking research projects that will lead to major advances in understanding at a supportable cost.

Polanyi discussed the rationale used in industrial research laboratories, where, generally, research projects must have a 1 to 2 year payback, often due to shareholder pressure. Polanyi said that companies must strive to maintain their competitive edge. Metaphorically, they're drilling oil wells next to existing oil wells. This is reasonable and makes good business sense, but it won't discover new sources of oil.

"It's not for this that we have basic science," Polanyi stressed. "The systematic exploration of the unknown is essential to applied science because it feeds into it in an intricate and unforecastable way." As proof of this type of interaction, Polanyi cited the example of the laser.

How should funds be apportioned for basic research? Let the scientific entrepreneurs compete for the existing funds in the market for science discovery. Judge by results after the initial investment has been made, Polanyi said.

"Scientific bottom lines do exist," Polanyi added. "I'm concerned that despite the arguments I've put forward, history is showing, little by little, that the criterium of scientific worth is being diluted. The strength of Canadian science, which has never been excessive, will be sapped to no purpose."

"Basic applied science"

ISTC's Silverman said the topic must be seen in the context of the present social and environmental climate in which it's being posed. "New technologies have changed the basics of competition," he added. "We're seeing the mobilization of national resources to gain technological advances." He cited Japan's "basic applied science" as one example.

With today's intense competition, there may be a temptation to make all scientific research goal-oriented, particularly directed toward industrial and technical goals. "This is shortsighted," Silverman stated. "You must also know about basic science to be able to absorb it. The objectives of basic science are not always without practical motivation."

Silverman said that government programs provide substantial support for basic science. "While the goals of the two are different, they can be complementary. In some areas, the interface between them has blurred, e.g., superconductivity." (In the question period which followed, one member of the audience pointed out that superconductivity could not be considered modern as superconductors had been discovered in 1911. Silverman said that he meant high-temperature superconductors.)

The time lapse between scientific discovery and commercialization is shrinking. In many areas, the products of basic research today quickly become the business opportunities of tomorrow. Care should be taken by basic and applied science to try to provide a seamless transition between the two.

"The policy supporting basic research should not be framed so narrowly that individuals who wish to work at the interface between basic and applied science or wish, on occasion, to move between them, be held back," Silverman added.

What is policy?

To start with, Laubitz said the answer to the forum topic is a "qualified no". But, what is policy? Laubitz said that policy should provide direction in three fields: subject matter; the manner in which research is conducted; the extent of funding.

For the second, Laubitz said a hands-off policy was imperative. "Researchers are in the best position to decide."

On the matter of funding, he noted that it is indirectly related to strategic objectives. "Now, with this climate of constraint and reduction, goals usually include words such as competition and wealth creation."

Making a direct connection between basic science and economics is difficult. The recent thinking of economist/scientists is changing. There is now recognition that the process is chaotic, in the mathematical sense. "This is a far cry from the widely-held perception that technology can be bought off the shelf," Laubitz said.

Policy must provide the bridging mechanisms that transfer the advances and development of knowledge into the technological domain. This is particularly difficult to achieve in Canada where the gap between basic research performed in the universities and that performed in industrial companies tends to be very wide.

"How much basic policy can we afford?" Laubitz asked. "Once we decide, no further restrictions should apply."

Give it a chance

Following the presentations, the speakers were given time to respond to each other. Polanyi asked if basic science policy is helping. "Basic science is a high-risk enterprise and better that it should have the chance to succeed. It cannot be put in a "ball and chain, i.e., pointing the specific direction it should take."

A key question is what should the level of support for basic research be and how should it be set. Silverman said this was almost impossible to answer. "Science has to compete with the other goals of society, including subsidies to agriculture and so forth. And all of this is a trade-off at the political level."

It is a fact of life that it is very much a part of the political process. Silverman said that government is trying to maintain, and has maintained, a good level of funding for granting councils.

He noted that the original funding for the Centres of Excellence came from outside the granting councils and that politicians had allotted nearly one-quarter billion dollars to them. "I don't believe that the Centres of Excellence should expected to be, or be expected to change to be, arms of industrial research. They must continue with their long-term research orientation in their outlook and develop their agenda based primarily on the views of the researchersin the networks."

They can consult industry, Silverman added, but they cannot be allowed to become short-term problem solvers on behalf of industry.

A question for Canada is how to create wealth in the future. The exports Canada has relied on in the past (commodity-based) are no longer wanted by the world. Every country is looking to science as the basis of wealth creation. In the Centres of Excellence, Silverman continued, the question will be: What will we get out of it? The issue for them is how to make the transition of laboratory research discoveries to application.

Laubitz said that one of the drawbacks of planned research is that it becomes an extrapolation of existing knowledge. Countries with the resources gain the most. "Therefore, planned research leads to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and a country like Canada tends to be on the poorer end of the technological game."

Canada needs to capitalize on unplanned research breakthroughs. "Highly in our policy, we should focus on the actual exploitation of what basic research does," Laubitz said.

One of the important factors here is venture capital. Many bemoan the lack of same, but is there a lack, or is it "venturing" elsewhere?

As time allowed another go-round, the speakers had a third and final chance to make their points. Polanyi said that despite the seeming agreement among the three, they really did not all agree. "There are different points of view being expressed, but they're being expressed in a suitably Canadian way and so they may be hidden."

He noted that Silverman had said that decisions are based on political reality and in this he was correct. However, Polanyi added, "Political reality must be brought into touch with apolitical reality."

As for the lack of venture capital available, Polanyi said that there is a pool of $3 billion, but only about 25 to 30% is spent on high-tech investments; in the U.S., the figure is 67%. And, the Canadian portion of high-tech investment is usually spent in the U.S. "We need to create faith in the Canadian venture capital sector, in Canadian knowledge and ingenuity."

He also pointed out that the part of science and technology which takes basic science into the marketplace as a finished product cost 100 times as much as the basic science itself.

In his final remarks, Silverman defended government policy saying that it is investing a "remarkable amount" of money in basic research. He took the scientific community and its institutions to task claiming that they say little to the government on how science policy should be run. Other than the usual complaints about the lack of money, "The government doesn't get from the scientific community a reasoned analysis on the system itself and how it ought to operate."

According to Silverman, the main issue is: What is the interface between basic research, basic applied research, applied research, industrial technology and application crystallization? How is that interface supposed to function in an international competitive environment?

Silverman said that what ought to concern university researchers is the gap between what university research can produce in the way of research and how industry can absorb it. "There is a large gap between them for the most part."

He added that to absorb university research, companies must do research themselves, that industry cannot depend on universities to be their research arms.

"A lot needs to be done and a lot could be done by the university research community, and the research community in general, to work with the government to look at the issues and spend much more time on policy analysis on the research system and how it ought to operate."

"Why does NSERC need 63 programs?"

In the question period which followed, one delegate asked Silverman why NSERC needs 63 programs and that they must have an applied research twist to them. What he found bewildering is that NSERC's mandate is to support basic research. Silverman said that he was not aware there were 63 programs and that NSERC is supposed to bridge the gap between basic and applied research.

Another comment was that in recent years government policy has encouraged government labs to compete with university labs for industrial support. Polanyi said that there was a cancerous development of "regisme" because there is less imagination in the centre than at the periphery. "We have a less sophisticated industrial base in Canada than the U.S. by a large margin. Yet, research labs in Canada are tied to industry in Canada much more. This is damaging university labs."

The forum was an interesting and entertaining event which attracted quite a large audience. Most of the questions raised, including the main theme, had very nebulous answers, but this was probably to be expected. But, sessions like these are still of great value. They bring to the forefront matters of great importance to the scientific community. They provide an update on issues, help clarify and lead to a greater understanding of them. Having many of the principals involved lets one see where each stands. If this type of forum is continued at future CSC conferences, organizers should build on what's been done and not try to re-invent the wheel, so we're not discussing the same points year after year.
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Author:Rodden, Graeme
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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