Should Ontario focus on basic or applied science?

Should Ontario focus on basic or applied science?

The federal government recently released its long-term science and technology strategy, which details its multi-pronged approach to bolstering innovation in Canada.

The document outlines five “priority research areas” where the government plans to target support, including: environment and agriculture; health and life sciences; natural resources and energy; information and communications technology; and advanced manufacturing.

Much of the strategy document focuses on ways government can leverage research in priority areas to create economic value. This is a sensible goal for public policy, as scientific research plays a critical role in the creation of new technologies, products and, in turn, jobs. And targeting specific sectors of the economy for innovation support is how many of the world’s most competitive jurisdictions have developed a reputation and success in certain industries. 

In the United States, the majority of government support for R&D goes toward funding defence- and health-oriented research. In Canada, by contrast, government support for R&D is fairly evenly distributed between industrial production and technology, health, energy and the environment and general advancement of knowledge. This broad funding approach isn’t so much a problem as the type of research that is being funded.

There are two broad areas of scientific research: basic and applied. Basic science aims to increase the knowledge base of a particular field of study, while applied science aims to solve particular problems. The main difference lies in the problem identification for the researcher and the objectives of the study. In applied science, the problem is usually laid out for the researcher and the task is to solve it using scientific methods. An example might be finding a cure for a specific disease. Basic science does not seek to identify and solve real world problems but often does so indirectly by contributing to a base of knowledge in a particular scientific field. Both are essential to the innovation process (and are often highly interwoven), but basic science offers a more unpredictable and uneven path to market-ready goods and services. 

For this reason, many governments are turning away from basic science and focusing on applied research to bolster innovation in the economy. Applied research is perceived to generate greater value for government research dollars, as it strives to create tangible results.

Improving production processes and developing new products are essential for economic progress, and important activities for the government to promote. However, the knowledge base from which productivity-enhancing innovations are derived is often dependent upon the lengthy and costly basic science research programs. While the path to market-ready innovation is clearer for applied science, it does not necessarily lead to more or better (or more profitable or more important) innovations.

Data from high-R&D-spending countries shows the funding for basic science is a major part of their innovation supports landscape. According to OECD figures, in the United States, basic science accounts for more than 16 percent of total R&D spending. In France and Iceland, it accounts for roughly a quarter of total spending and in Denmark, basic science accounts for 18 percent of total R&D. Regrettably, there are no data available on basic science spending for Canada, but recent news reports from the science community have claimed that the federal government has exerted tremendous pressure on science research by reducing or eliminating funding that doesn’t directly fall into its economic agenda.

The nature of basic science is that the benefits are intangible, prompting many to overlook its value. The discovery of DNA, radioactivity, and many critical advancements of cancer research would not have been possible without basic science. And because of the long-time commitments and uncertain returns, the private sector is highly unlikely to take on basic science research. In turn, public investment is needed to build the knowledge base that businesses can leverage to generate new ideas for commercial development. This is in part what promotes a strong cluster environment.

Ontario and Canada should give basic science research equal footing in the quest to promote innovation. The desire for scientific breakthroughs is warranted, but they’re unlikely to happen without substantial investments in knowledge creation. The Institute applauds the government’s more activist stance on promoting innovation but stresses that government’s primary role should be to facilitate knowledge transfer and research that generates spillovers. Basic science is an essential part of this endeavour.

Photo Credit: filo, Getty Images

Category: Education, Innovation, Productivity