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The basic research predicament in Canada: how to create a Polanyi in a Lindros culture.

I share the anguish of Professor A. Shaver in his letter 4, Jan. 1993: What's to Become of Basic Research in Canada? (ACCN, January 1993, p. 4). What indeed! The gradual destruction of curiosity-generated fundamental research in Canada is still continuing despite the incontestable evidence that such research is the fountainhead of all technology and thence economic prosperity |1, 2~. Aside from the cultural benefits and technological spin-offs of basic research, one can easily demonstrate the direct economic benefits of fundamental research, as follows.

Let me start by my recent analysis |3~ that draws upon the seminal thinking of Kay and Llewellyn Smith |4~ regarding the importance of basic research. According to these authors, "most of the economic benefits of scientific research are the product of advances in fundamental knowledge rather than the search for answers to particular applied problems. The primary reason why we have computers now, and did not have them 100 years ago, is not that we have in the meantime discovered a need for computers, but that we know a great deal more about mathematics and solid-state physics than we did a century ago. To equate the useful with the applied is to display the same level of understanding as the child who thinks that the hands are the most important parts of a watch because they are the ones that tell the time". I need not dwell here on the inestimable economic value of computers to our modern society, which is of course a direct result of basic research.

It is possible also to quantify the direct economic benefits of basic research of a more recent vintage. It has been shown |5~, on the basis of conservative assumptions, that the rate of return from academic research (i.e. basic research) conducted between 1975-78 is 28%, based on typical data from the U.S.A.

As regards basic research, Canada suffers from two fundamental flaws: the first is the under-investment in science, and, the second is the Lindros Syndrome |3~.

The under-investment in research and development in science in Canada is not new: we spend 1.32% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on R&D today -- exactly the same figure as in 1971. What is the result of this prolonged under-investment?

Canadians must face some very unpleasant facts: among the industrialized nations of the world, we rank as technological illiterates; we have become incompetent in unfolding scientific civilization.

In an age where innovation, technology and knowledge are the basis of wealth generation our smugly high standard of living is just that -- too smug and too high. There are no "maybes" here. The question is simply how quickly we feel the very real effects of not adapting to this new global reality |6~.

Not only our investment in R&D is the lowest (as percentage of GDP) among all industrialized countries, whatever we do invest is increasingly being directed towards "targeted" science, "relevant" science and "strategic" science, done in partnership with industry which is close to market and "hence knows innovation". We have previously demonstrated the fallacy of this approach which arises from the misconception that all innovation is market driven, with the inescapable corollary that not much innovation is idea-driven |1~. This kind of fallacious thinking is responsible for turning our universities and research institutes into "gadget factories" that Shaver so rightly deplores.

The emphasis on "relevant" science can cause catastrophic damage in many ways |7~. First, it tends "to restrict science to developed fields where the links to technology are most evident" |8~ thus robbing scientists of opportunities for making exciting new discoveries, including those of immense potential value in terms of economic prosperity, e.g., superconductivity in ceramic materials. Second, focus on "relevance" tends to promote mediocre science; in this context it should be remembered that the most relevant thing about science is that it be good science. Nothing is more irredeemably irrelevant than bad science |8~.

Canada also suffers from the so-called Lindros Syndrome: this disease is characterized by misplaced national priorities and an infantile obsession with the ritual of stick and puck. Canadians indulge in this collective emotional onanism, to the exclusion of any serious cultural pursuits including the culture of science |3~.

Thus, Canada not only needs more investment in basic science but it also needs a new culture in which creativity and originality is nurtured in spheres of art, literature, music and science. What we need desperately is an intellectual culture rather than a moronic culture. We need more Polanyis and less Lindroses |3~.

And, finally, some other recent penetrating analyses |9, 10~ demonstrate the vital importance of basic research and especially, its economic utility |9~.


1. A.K. Vijh, Canadian Chemical News, 37 (#4), 12 (1985); idem, ibid, 42 (#10), 14 (1990).

2. A.K. Vijh, Chemical & Engineering News, 69, (#28), 5 (1991).

3. A.K. Vijh, Drying Technology, 11 (#3), in press (1993).

4. J.A. Kay and C.H. Llewellyn Smith, Fiscal Studies, 6 (#3), 4 (1985).

5. E. Mansfield, Research Policy, 20, 1 (1991).

6. L. Kerwin, Canadian Chemical News, 41, (#5), 5 (May 1989); see also, A.K. Vijh, Physics in Canada, 47 (#4), 108 (July 1991).

7. A.K. Vijh, Canadian Research, 20, (#9), 2 (Sep. 1987).

8. J.C. Polanyi, Open Address to the Annual Meeting of the Chemical Institute of Canada, Saskatoon, June 1, 1986.

9. K. Pavitt, Research Policy, 20, 109 (1991).

10. J. Ziman, Science and Public Policy 18, (#1), 66 (1991).

Ashok K. Vijh, FCIC, O.C., F.R.S.C., Institut de recherche d'Hydro-Quebec, Varennes, Quebec.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Vijh, Ashok K.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
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