David Suzuki: National Research Council's new focus ignores how science works

Comments7

The federal government recently announced a reorganization of the National Research Council to make it more “ business-led” and industry-focused. It appears we’re coming full circle to the early 1970s, when Sen. Maurice Lamontagne released “A Science Policy for Canada,” a report proposing Canadian science be directed to “mission-oriented” work rather than “curiosity driven” research.

Since then, many politicians have encouraged support for science that serves market interests. I believe we should support science because curiosity and the ability to ask and answer questions are part of what makes our species unique and helps us find our way in the world. Still, basic research aimed at specific outcomes can lead to game-changing applications, from transistors and pesticides to nuclear bombs, penicillin and oral contraceptives. But how do new applications flow from science?

Many scientists support a mythical notion of what makes science innovative. To be “relevant”, they write grant applications as if their work will lead to cures for cancer, new energy forms or salt-tolerant plants, depending on the priorities of funders and governments. This creates the illusion that science proceeds from experiment A to B to C to solution. But we really have no idea what results an experiment will produce. If we did, there would be no point to the experiment.

It’s more likely that a scientist will do experiment A leading to F then O, while another in a different area will do experiment Z leading to W then L. Maybe the two will meet at a conference or even a pub and, in talking about their respective work, realize that results O and L could lead to a new invention!

In 1958, during my genetics studies, we were assigned to critique papers by corn geneticist Barbara McClintock. She painstakingly crossed corn plants, harvesting two crops, first in Indiana then in Mexico. She discovered an amazing and mystifying phenomenon: “jumping” genes that moved from one chromosome location to another, suppressing gene activity wherever they landed. It defied everything we had learned. I sweated blood to make sense of her elegant experiments, although we assumed the phenomena she studied were peculiar to corn.

Decades later, scientists discovered jumping genes in other organisms, including fruit flies, and found they were useful for studying their development. McClintock was belatedly lionized for her discoveries and ultimately awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983. If her research proposals had been assessed for relevance or potential applications, she wouldn’t have received funding for her early, trailblazing work.

As a graduate student, I also studied the experiments of microbial geneticists Werner Arber and Daniel Nathans, and biochemist Hamilton Smith, who were investigating an esoteric phenomenon: bacteria that resisted infection by viruses called bacteriophages (meaning “eaters of bacteria”). Like McClintock’s work, their experiments were elegant, especially when you consider they were working with microorganisms you can’t see the way you can observe a corn plant or fruit fly.

It was astonishing. The bacteria produced enzymes that cut DNA into pieces. They were called “restriction enzymes” and acted by recognizing specific sequences within the DNA and cutting at that point. Various bacterial species evolved distinct restriction enzymes, cutting DNA at different sequences. When the original experiments were carried out, no one could have anticipated that these enzymes would turn out to be critical tools for genetic engineering. It was just good science. And, like McClintock, the scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.

Canada’s contribution to science is minuscule compared to countries like the U.S., Britain, Germany and even China. But if our top scientists are as good as any, they become our eyes and ears to cutting-edge science around the world, are invited to speak at top universities and institutes and attend meetings where the latest ideas and discoveries are shared.

If we’re serious about creating partnerships between science and business, we have to support the best scientists so they are competitive with any around the world. We also have to recognize that innovation and discoveries don’t always come from market-driven research. We should recognize truly internationally groundbreaking work to inspire young people who will grow up knowing they can be as good as scientists anywhere. This takes commitment from governments, more generous grants and long-term support.

Comments (7) Add New Comment
Not recent
The changes at NRC are not "recent", though it is only recently that they are getting more broadly known. What is recent is that NRC fired their entire commercialization staff and re-organized the commercialization effort to focus on particular industry sectors.

NRC over the past four years has been suffering a death by a thousand cuts, a few scientists and support staff here, and then a few more there, and then a few more over there.
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Snicker
"are invited to speak at top universities and institutes and attend meetings where the latest ideas and discoveries are shared."

David - Are Canadian scientists still allowed to speak freely? Or is it just PMO approved 'information' only now?
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Argulion
Just wondering. Would tobacco still be healthy and DDT be safe if corporate science was not proven wrong by primarily funded public science?

Personally, I see no public benefit from increased corporate influence on public science. But, it is a subtle means to increase corporate welfare. Public funds for private corporate interests.
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Not recent
Argulion, It is by no means a 'subtle' means to increase corporate welfare. NRC's IRAP program has been around for over a decade with a stated mission to provide money to businesses. What is happening elsewhere in NRC is just an extension of that.

There is no public benefit for increased corporate influence in public science. I have long held that government science should focus only on long term projects that industries and universities are loathe to do because there is no profit or glamor in them. Only governments are able to commit to 50 year studies. But alas, stupidity, greed and ideology reign.
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Jeffrey Simpson
The Harper government is not one that will be supportive of anything that does not "grow" the economy. Personally, I think he sees theoretical science as a waste of time and money and that is because he is not aware of the enormous contributions to the global population made by theoretical scientists. Who could predict that the patent clerk, busy at his desk in Switzerland, would father E=MC2. It was five years after the publication of his work before the first physicist congratulated him. They simply didn't understand him either. Stick to what you know PM Harper and leave the scientists alone to do their work and speak their minds. If PM Harper were scientifically knowledgeable he would know that it is impossible to forever grow any economy on a finite set of available resources. Smarten up will you please.
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Not recent
People seem to forget that Harper is a born again fundamentalist christian whose political background is the Reform Party. everything he does must be viewed throught this lens if you want to understand his motivation.
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Jenny
Yes, I agree with Mr. Suzuki. The same thing is happening in social work and the social sciences ... the non-profit sector where real social work use to thrive is now run by BUSINESS. You will be hard pressed to find a Master of Social Work graduate who is employed as the Executive Director of a non-profit organization in Ontario. Mostly they are Business Administration, Human Resources Management, and Policy Administration graduates. Social Work has become a handmaid of these other disciplines.

If social workers can't run their own organizations how can their voices steer the direction of social work research or social change? All of the government grants must prove they meet a triangle of partners - 1) For profit business 2) the non-profit org making the application and they usually want 'community volunteers and students' involved. 3) the government org providing the funding.

The university grants work the same way for people who want to conduct social work research, there has to be a for-profit 'community partner' involved.

Point worth noting - NOT A WORD OF ADVOCACY AGAINST THIS FROM THE CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF SOCIAL WORKERS OR THE ONTARIO ASSOCIATION OF SOCIAL WORKERS OR THE ONTARIO ASSOCIATION OF SOCIAL WORK ABOUT THIS SCENARIO. If they have uttered a word of disagreement it must have been very low key so that only they know about it. SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOF TOPS GUYS!

I suggested many times over that the education of social workers could include streams: community development, social work administration and management and clinical work. That way social workers just like human resource workers would receive the nuts and bolts education to feel fully rounded when operating a social work organization.

SAUL ALINSKY - the famed community organizer, WOULD LIKELY ROLL OVER IN HIS GRAVE if he knew that today 'community development' job ads list 'human resource management' college graduates as qualified to do this work. Human Resource workers are the defenders of business not exactly 'critical community developers'.

Silencing 'free voices' is the order of the day.
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