Scientific curiosity fuels growth – by Carol Goar (Toronto Star – June 20, 2013)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Peter Howitt, a transplanted Canadian at an Ivy League American university, proposes a sensible science policy for Ottawa.

Heartsick scientists have lobbied, pleaded and rallied Canadians, but the prime minister’s resolve is unshakable. The National Research Council (NRC), with its proud history of scientific breakthroughs — from canola to the electric wheelchair — must become a business-directed agency focusing on commercial innovation.

But basic science can still thrive Canada, says Peter Howitt, an expert on technological change, economic growth and national productivity. In fact, the professor emeritus at Brown University — a transplanted Canadian — regards Stephen Harper’s move as a step forward, one that could lead to a badly needed reorganization of the way Ottawa fosters and disseminates leading-edge research.

Howitt has just written a paper for the C.D. Howe Institute, From Curiosity to Wealth Creation, showing how Canada can use Harper’s decision as a jumping-off point to modernize its underperforming, resource-dominated, economy.

His plan may be too bold for the Harper government and Canada’s tight-fisted corporate leaders. But it is economically sensible and scientifically sound. It proposes a four-step transformation.

First, the National Research Council would embrace its new role as a bridge between science and industry and strive to become a pan-Canadian technology transfer institution. “The NRC is, to some extent, a relic of the era before the government adopted a comprehensive policy with respect to science and technology,” Howitt says. “It is not as well-placed as universities to undertake the kind of scientific research that a country needs to remain on the frontiers of science and technology in the modern world.”

Second, Ottawa would shift the locus of scientific research in Canada from the NCR’s labs to the universities, providing them with the resources to attract the best researchers in the world. “Though it may seem paradoxical, the evidence supports the view that the greatest benefit to society will come from scientists for whom practical utility and individual financial reward are minor considerations,” he says. “The best way to attract such scientists is to redirect our research support towards the problems that are most challenging from a scientific point of view, not towards those that bureaucrats view as the most likely to lead to commercial success.”

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