Leave it to Karen Selick

While everyone else is arguing about whether (presumed) creationist Gary Goodyear should keep his job as federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, Selick wonders why we need a Minister of State for Science and Technology to begin with:

While there may be a necessary role for government in human affairs, shepherding science isn’t part of it. Even applying conventional notions of what functions the state should perform, there is no compelling evidence of “market failure” in science and technology — that is, no proof that the amount of scientific research being produced by privately funded institutions (including businesses and charities) is insufficient, requiring government to step in and generate more.
Nor is there any proof that government is better than private organizations at selecting which scientific projects are most beneficial to pursue.
Furthermore, no one can ever prove that subsidizing science produces greater returns to society than subsidizing any of the myriad competing open maws all begging for government funds.

Damian P.

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8 thoughts on “Leave it to Karen Selick

  1. This — “here is no compelling evidence of “market failure” in science and technology” — is manifestly untrue, which is why every developed nation and most developing nations fund basic research.
    Basic research is a classic example of a public good; once the knowledge is out there, everyone can use it and innovate based upon it. But the private sector is very inefficient at producing public goods, because of the free rider problem;
    what’s the advantage of one company producing it if everyone can then use it? Patents help with this for engineering type applications but not for science; you can’t patent a discovery, just a technique or method (and quite rightly).
    This is especially important in Canada, where as you discussed in the context of the Nortel meltdown, private-sector R&D in Canada is *abysmal*, despite years of trying to bring it into line with that of other developed nations — cf Paul Wells recent post,
    http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/03/22/the-swedish-state-is-not-prepared-to-own-car-factories/
    So yes, there does need to be governmental involvement in research, and its importance to future productivity is certainly enough to warrant it being a cabinet level position.

  2. This is little more than a clumsy attempt to intimidate the scientific community into silence. The effect of ending public funding for science would be devastating and far-reaching. The effect on Canadian universities would be immediate. The best would leave immediately, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. The rest would continue in dead-end teaching positions, bitter and angry. All science grad students in Canada would immediately be out on the street. A few would find jobs, but most would be unemployable since they would be overqualified for the wage slave jobs that would be all that’s left in this science-free utopia. Of course, we would also have to stop training new medical doctors in Canada, so we would have to start importing them from Third World medical schools. Eventually, as the few remaining Ph.D.’s employed by Canada’s universities retire, the pinnacle of scientific expertise in Canada would be your Pakistani gynecologist and your high school shop teacher.

  3. The Canadian government gives out a lot of tax credits for private R&D as well.
    Given that those government investments have helped companies from RIM down to small manufacturers, I don’t see why the government taking an interest in the advancement of applied science is a bad thing.

  4. Private R&D is parasitic. Rather than maintain large, expensive research facilities which are difficult to support in leaner times, most small and medium-sized companies partner with university researchers when they want research done. It’s extremely rare for university scientists to derive all their operating funds from private sources, but even if they did, they still need research infrastructure such as lab facilities which are funded by government agencies. Even large companies, like oil companies which do have permanent research personnel on staff, partner with academics on many projects. Walk through the science departments of any major university and you will see numerous research centres and consortia supported by both private and public funded interests.

  5. “Interestingly, the National Research Council comes under the Minister for Industry; go figure(?)…”
    Go figure what? Of course it does. If the Private Sector really did its own R&D, there would be no preceived need for taxpayers to bankroll it. But like much else, business is subsidized by the taxpayers at every level. It always has been.

  6. Re : RM @ 11:24. “Private R&D is parasitic.”
    Jeez RM, you sure are a tough crowd.
    But tell me something. Where did the “government agencies” get all that money that the parasites are feeding on?
    Now, about your apocalyptic comment @ 9:44. “clumsy attempt to intimidate the scientific community into silence…etc…etc…etc…”
    It was just one person’s political opinion about whether “we need a Minister of State for Science and Technology to begin with”. I wouldn’t exactly call it a full frontal assault on science or the government financing of it. Besides, what are the chances of something like your apocalyptic scenario coming to fruition? One in a million?
    As far as criticizing “science”. All I can say is “it’s about time”. I would certainly like to see more of it. There is way to much political ideology imbedded in certain “sciences” and they need to be challenged more.
    Lastly, the interesting comment about whether “Goodyear should keep his job”?
    I need to brush up on my reading comprehension skills. Here I was under the impression that the debate was whether Goodyear should be guillotined, burned at the stake or drawn and quartered. All for showing the tiniest bit of evolutionist doubt.
    Theirs tough crowds everywhere now a days.

  7. Seeing as scientists are supposed to be criticizing other scientists, what’s the problem with outsiders criticizing the way scientists are funded? They aren’t the new priestly class.

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