Assessing the Usefulness of Useless Research *

March 29, 2016
Paul Dufour
Fellow and Adjunct Professor, ISSP
University of Ottawa

My great uncle, Paul Larose, was a distinguished chemist at the NRC during the WWII era. His expertise was in textiles (especially wool materials). With part of the research he conducted, the NRC was able to demonstrate the superiority of nylon in the making of parachutes (substituting the then used silk). It was a world first. Like most researchers exploring their curiosity itch, he had no clear sense that his work would lead to such a development. As the scientist turned polymath Michael Polanyi was to say later in a classic paper, ‘The Republic of Science’: You can kill or mutilate the advance of science, you cannot shape it. For it can advance only by essentially unpredictable steps, pursuing problems of its own, and the practical benefits of these advances will be incidental and hence doubly unpredictable.

So it is with fundamental science—it is a veritable free market of ideas and indeed unpredictable, with consequences virtually unknowable. Its prime motivation is about understanding nature and ourselves. And the sciences, along with music, and the arts are cultural assets not to be overlooked for their profound impacts on people and society. So it makes sense to leave science to creative scientists, and leave them alone – to a certain point.

But when politicians and bureaucrats are too much engaged in this process, things can get muddy. In the US, a political-policy debate has emerged within elements of Congress and the avant-garde science community with arrière-garde officials wanting to ensure that publicly funded research is relevant and not wasteful—especially within that easiest of all targets- the social sciences. In partial response, the Golden Goose Award has been instituted to illustrate the benefits of federally-funded basic scientific research, by highlighting examples of studies that seemed unusual at the time but ultimately led to major breakthroughs that have had a significant impact on society.

Back here in Canada, scientists of all persuasions are recovering from an antediluvian period under the Harper administration when much of what constituted support for basic research had strings attached to it or was scaled back—and scientists, at least within the federal government ambit, were muzzled. Science powered commerce and that was the end of the discussion. Then along came 2015 and the promise of progress.

Building on the Liberal Party platform of valuing and respecting science and scientists, the 2016 federal budget has signalled the need to better understand the role and importance of so-called discovery research or fundamental science. It is even presaged by a 1986 quote from one of Canada’s Nobel Prize awardees, John Polanyi, who, picking up from the earlier remarks of his father Michael, underscored that: I had no thought of any application of this new knowledge—if it could be obtained—nor did anyone ask me to justify my work in this fashion. The assumption at that date was that if the breakthrough in understanding of nature, that is to say in fundamental or basic science, could be achieved, applications would undoubtedly follow. The assumption turned out to be correct.

To be sure, Canada’s support for fundamental science is non-trivial ranging from investments in polar and oceans research along with large scale (big science) facilities such as TRIUMF-celebrating its 40th anniversary; to the SNO lab which led to a co-shared Nobel this past year for Art McDonald and his team; to partnership arrangements with private patrons such as the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing, and to large-scale research stations such as the Experimental Lakes Area. Discovery research is now being supported with a fresh, larger injection of money. But with the budget, the Minister for Science has been given the unenviable task of undertaking a comprehensive review of all elements of federal support for fundamental science over the coming year. Among other things, the review aims to:

  • Examine the rationale for current targeting of granting councils’ funding and bring greater coherence to the diverse range of federal research and development priorities and funding instruments;

  • Ensure there is sufficient flexibility to respond to emerging research opportunities for Canada, including big science projects and other international collaborations.

This may sound a bit like the Sir Paul Nurse review of the UK granting councils last year and even smacks with the rhetoric behind the 2011 Jenkins Expert Panel of federal support to research and development. And it isn’t the first time that the granting councils’ discovery research mandates have been scrutinized. Organizations as diverse as PAGSE, the CCA, and the defunct Science Council of Canada have all grappled with how to better assess the critical role of basic research—be it hard, soft or just plain mushy.

It will be a challenge to tackle this latest venture effectively along with adept diplomacy while not unduly interfering with unfettered creation of ideas. Trickier still will be to take account of the links to other aspects of the knowledge ecosystem including traditional knowledge, public interest research and private sector innovation. No doubt the Minister will have the support of her new Chief Sciences Officer along with other willing partners within Cabinet and the knowledge communities. That said, the exercise should bear in mind what that staid magazine, The Economist, has noted: “ As long as the money available gives scientists enough opportunities to keep new ideas flowing---and keeps the laboratories that produce trained people reasonably happy—the number of missed opportunities does not matter. If research scientists are variedly busy, their work can benefit the society that pays for them.”

My great uncle fully understood this and that it required a certain continued freedom to enable the power of ideas. He became the President of the Canadian Association of Scientific Workers after the war. In that role, he pushed hard for an understanding of the role of science in society making efforts to launch better working conditions for male and female researchers so that they could stay in Canada. Hopefully, the latest review of science by the federal government will recognize the importance of signalling the usefulness of all forms of fundamental knowledge.


*(with apologies to Abraham Flexner-The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Harper’s 1939)