Chris Horvat - Polar Oceanographer
“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”
This is a statement by the head of the largest scientific agency in Canada. No, that is not a joke, an Onion article, or an impostor. The man (John McDougall) who said this is in charge of overseeing all scientific research in Canada, giving a speech in which he outlined the new goal of the National Research Council (budget $900m): supporting only that research that is "commercially viable".
The utter myopia that led to the support, crafting, and passing of this kind of legislation by the ruling party in Canada, a by-all-accounts democratic, 21st century, forward-thinking nation, is hard to conceive of... an accomplishment that damns Canada to a future lagging far behind all other modern nation in the progression of scientific accomplishments and ideas. It also can be seen as the extension of the policies recently insinuated at by a Congressional committee member aimed at overseeing our largest funding agency, the NSF (budget $7bn), though considerably more restrictive. (A short discussion here). It should not come as any surprise, then, to find that publication under NRC-funded research grants funded in the two years since McDougall took over has dropped by almost 75%.
Canada was the birthplace and home of John Charles Fields, a mathematician for whom the Fields Medal, the single most prestigious (and difficult) award to obtain in the realm of mathematics and science, is named. Now mathematicians like Fields, Samuel Beatty, W.H. Metzler, and many others, who were born, worked, and died in Canada, are at risk of seeing mathematical inquiry snuffed out in the country. Mathematics is often seen as a fruitless science, with no point and no relevance to everyday life. It is certainly the STEM discipline with the least "commercial value" to a politician.
This of course, is as far from the truth as is possible. Bad Astronomy writes about the awful consequences this law may have in some detail, bringing up the case of J.C. Maxwell, discoverer of the laws of electricity and magnetism, without whose understanding we would be unable to send emails, use GPS devices, or drive cars.
It is important to remind people in times like these about how science and business actually work. One more example: the semiconductor. The fundaments of the semiconductor were identified and analysed first through mathematical and physical research, starting with the Hall effect and the discovery of the electron, in the late 19th century. The idea of quantum tunneling was suggested in the early 20th century by physicists and mathematicians attempting to uncover fundamental laws of the universe. It wasn't until nearly a century later that Microsoft, Apple, and IBM relied upon these essentially pro-bono discoveries to become the world's largest corporations. Commercial viability, indeed.
The NRC's phone number is 613-993-9101
Oceanographer, Mathemagician, and Interested Party