Don’t Devalue Basic Research, Says AAAS Op-Ed in Toronto Star

Hefty federal deficits in Canada and the United States pose a significant threat to fundamental, basic research as some policymakers seem to value near-term, industry-focused science more highly. That’s short-sighted and a shame, wrote AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in a 19 May Op-Ed in the Toronto Star.

Basic science provides a springboard for innovation and economic growth. But, because it proceeds relatively slowly and its outcomes are difficult to predict, this research has traditionally relied upon government funding.

In the United States, however, some policymakers are insisting that every federal research grant must be “certified” as likely to advance specific national priorities. Officials in Canada, meanwhile, recently announced a restructuring of the National Research Council to focus on big projects “directed by and for” Canadian industry, a change aimed at spurring more business support for research, Leshner noted.

Instead, basic and applied research should be considered equally important to national interests, Leshner argued. Examples of game-changing products and technologies rooted in basic research include penicillin, X-rays, chemical lasers and Google, which began with a basic mathematical riddle that prompted the company’s founders to develop an algorithm for ranking Web pages.

“These are difficult economic times, and scientists should not be in the business of instructing policymakers who must weigh competing pressures. We only hope that elected officials in Canada and the United States will remember, as they lean into the important work of attempting to reduce staggering national deficits, that basic discoveries, untethered from immediate business goals, spark ingenuity, innovation and prosperity long into the future,” Leshner wrote.

Canadian Minister for S&T Gary Goodyear’s Address at the AAAS Forum on S&T Policy