Friday, August 21, 2015

Six Questions About Science and Technology

How government funds science and how it treats the information that scientists produce says much about the direction a society is taking and the vision that the government has for that society. Here are six questions that an engineer and researcher named Vallen Rezazadeh has been asking the candidates about science and technology. In response, I offer the best suggested answers that I can come up with.

1. What actions do you think the federal government should take to accelerate economic diversification in Canada?

A diversification strategy should emphasize (1) making strategic investments in infrastructure; (2) ensuring the availability of high quality labour (by investing in education and training, enhancing the quality of life, and improving the structure of opportunity for First Nations and immigrants); and (3) the encouragement of growth clusters through the funding of pure research at universities and the creation of generally hospitable environments for business.

2. Would you support measures such as Public-Private Partnerships and tax breaks to entice hi-tech companies to establish operations in Canada?

 As a general theoretical presumption, no. As a pragmatic response to what our competitors are doing, sometimes a qualified yes. Much of the research on P3s confirms that all too often government simply replaces an up-front capital expenditure with a series of recurring payments under a lease agreement that ends up costing even more. In return, private investor is too often shielded from competition.  As for tax breaks, if they are too targeted or discriminatory, they have economic effects that are not unlike those of business subsidies (which are supposed to be an economic no-no). But where such policies (1) are generally being promoted in our competitors' markets; and (2) there are no practical alternatives in terms of either direct public provision or regular private contracting , and (3) proposed projects have been vetted for moral hazard, they may be the best option.

3. What is your opinion on recent changes to the structure and mandate of the National Research Council of Canada by the Harper government?

I hate them. They are anti-science. Shifting the NRC away from funding pure science to supporting industry is ideological policy-making in the worst sense. It is also bad economics. The first role of government, economically speaking, is to supply those public goods that are under-supplied by the market--to do what markets cannot.  Pure research is such a public good.

4. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the National Research Council of Canada?

Yes. I would look at what the world leaders in science are doing at the national level and look to at least match them, as part of our overall societal fitness and competitiveness. But that increase in funding is not as important as un-tying the funding from the ideological yoke of the Conservatives'  pro-business agenda, as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

5. As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency?

Yes. Canada spends less than 3/10th of 1 percent on its civil space program. Several nations with smaller GDPs spend more as a percentage than Canada does.

6.  As an MP, would you push for increased funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada?

 Yes. In this envelope there is a little more room for "applied " research and for the funding of partnerships with business, and for the promotion of centres of excellence in science and engineering across the country.  But otherwise, what I said about the National Research Council applies to NSERC as well.

Mark Crawford  teaches political science at Athabasca University.