There has been coverage lately about the elimination of many government supported research programs in Canada. The Experimental Lakes Research Area (coverage here, here, here and here) is the latest in a string of cuts aimed at reducing the federal deficit. Much of the decision rests on the idea that scientific work can be outsourced from government to Universities (as it already is through funding arrangements between researchers and NSERC) or to private contractors. Much of this discussion will focus on ecology and ecological research since that is my field of interest. I will expand a bit and discuss the state of affairs in biomedical research, a field where there is considerable privatization of research in Part II (link to come).
I don’t disagree that there is a problem with federal finances that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, contracting and outsourcing as a solution will not work unless government converts departmental research money to some other form (such as independent contracts). If outsourcing is the goal they’d put money into postdoc scholarships (my plug follows!), we work incredibly cheap and have an enormous vested interest in generating ‘product’ since our careers depend on it, but they’ve cut the NSERC postdoc funding by more than half (from 286 in 2010 to 133 in 2011). They could fund PhD students and MSc students but they’ve cut those programs too (see previous links, from 1219 and 1301 respectively in 2010 to 876 and 798 in 2011), and now the basic fundingto maintain and purchase research infrastructure for labs and special collections is being cut too. The cuts to research infrastructure are particularly key because they make it increasingly difficult for established profs to maintain their labs and long term projects.
For private industry to enter there need to be funding guarantees in place to support the kinds of basic research that government used to provide. This is particularly true for projects that might have a ‘distributed’ set of end users (citizens, farmers, municipalities), who, individually, would be unable to support the kinds of research that would provide them with valuable information about water quality, climate variability, forecasting and other ‘large-scale’ topics. I’m very much a pragmatist when it comes to the value of ecological research (much to the consternation of some), while I believe there may be inherent value to maintaining and understanding natural systems, there is a fundamental need to define that value so that you can provide rationale for funding, especially when you invoke the private sector. It becomes a trade off, either the government funds basic research under a loose assumption of inherent value, or we need to explicitly define the value of ecological systems and make end users pay for the research to maintain the ecological systems. If we chose the second option then you need to undertake a valuation exercise before you switch to the price enterprise system, otherwise you lose the value of your investment (e.g.: crown property and the ecological services provided therein).