Commercialization: cool aid in the take-the-money-please budget

TonyEdit.jpgBy Tony Patterson

Though kicked in the nuts by two prime ministers, Arthur Carty swore he wouldn't quit until his job was made permanent and a successor named. Then they made an offer he couldn't refuse and he abandoned his post as National Science Advisor. His ouster was a defeat for science and technology in Canada.

It was the most visible defeat for S&T but not the only one since the coming to power of this federal government. I connect S&T in Canada with the federal government because without the federal government there is no S&T in Canada — none in the corporations without SRED, none in the universities without NSERC and CFI and CRC, and the rest gone that now is done in federal agencies and departments, not least the National Research Council.

Now the NRC is being sundered, with news on the weekend that a number of research groups are going to be shut down or hived off. According to a report in The Ottawa Citizen, 300 jobs will be affected. NRC has about 4,000 employees. Pierre Coulombe, NRC president, wasn't around to comment. But his memo to staff that sparked the story talks of striving "to mitigate as much as possible the impact of these changes . . ." Strive to mitigate indeed. No standing up for S&T, no screaming bloody murder as they cut deep and the blood flows. Dr. Coulombe is going to strive to mitigate.

I have to allow that the NRC is not blameless in this fiasco. For almost a century it has assisted and guided the growth of virtually every technology-based business in Canada, from canola to music synthesizers. It keeps Canada's official time and measurements. It develops standards. But for that same century it has resolutely resisted blowing its own horn. UnCanadian. Unscientific. Undignified. Unheard of. The National Research Council is indeed little heard of considering its value. Consequently it has little public recognition or support and can be blown about at the whim of the minister, whoever that might be (currently a chiropractor from Cambridge), without fear of citizen uproar. Possibly they don't feel at NRC that the public wants to or needs to know what it's doing with the more than half billion dollars it spends each year. At any rate Dr. Coulombe hasn't bothered to fill the role of communications director for some time.

Dr. Carty used to have Dr. Coulombe's job running the NRC, before he was enticed away by Paul Martin. Mr. Martin promised he would lend an ear to his chief science advisor, but almost immediately he became the first PM to ignore Dr. Carty. Harper became the second, ignoring him then putting him off the premises at PCO and ultimately out of government, leaving the office vacant. Dr. Carty left not with a bang.

He now heads the Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology, which exists side-by-side with the Institute for Quantum Computing at uWaterloo. IQC has about $150 million in startup funding, which came in roughly equal tranches from RIM's Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis and family first, then Ontario, and finally the feds kicked in with the recent take-our-money-please-budget. WIN is co-located with IQC but doesn't seem to have the same place in the Lazaridis family's heart or eleemosynary inclinations. It does have Dr. Carty though.

Gerry Bull used to speak of the "cocktail scientists" in Ottawa, all discussion and no decision. You remember Gerry Bull. I sure do. I thought of him on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the trashing of the Avro Arrow. Everyone talks about the Arrow. Those who were around at the time remember the Velvet Glove as well, the missile system that was to arm the Arrow. Dr. Bull worked on that at CARDE (the Canadian Armament Research Establishment, now DRDC Valcartier) after graduating as the youngest ever PhD from U. of T.'s aeronautics institute.

He was murdered by Americans or Iranians or the Mossad, nobody seems to know which, about 20 years ago. A professional hit, shot through the neck at his apartment door in Brussels. It was the tragic end of a scientific, entrepreneurial saga. Dr. Bull was the world's leading authority on ballistics, starting with projectiles fired into the atmosphere packed with chemicals, chaff or electronics to collect measurements. By the time this program ran down, about 1,000 firings had taken place and, according to Wikipedia, "the data collected represents half of all the upper-atmospheric data to this day." Dr. Bull went on to greatly increase the range and accuracy of the conventional field howitzer. He was so valuable to the modern military that he was made an honorary American citizen by a special act of the U.S. Congress, sponsored by one-time presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, so that he could have the highest security clearance. All of which was prelude, just stepping-stones on the way to a gun-launched rocket that could put a satellite in outer space, his real interest. In order to build it he would ultimately do a deal with the devil Saddam in Iraq, a dangerous move in pursuit of the dream that would cost him his life. But long before this he became too controversial to be supported by the Canadian S&T (in those days it was R&D) establishment. His funding was delayed by defence research bureaucrats, then cut off. He was harassed. He was fined. He went abroad to ply his trade.

J. J. Brown, who got the first and maybe only doctorate in the history of technology from Yale, selected Dr. Bull back in the '60s as a then-current example of the Canadian Technology Syndrome. CTS (my term not Jack Brown's) consists of inventing things here then sending them away to produce value elsewhere. His book Ideas In Exile made the case that this has been going on since the beginning of Canadian time. Our now-current government apparently believes it has a cure for the syndrome. Commercialization is the new elixir. Along the corridor and in other clusters, proposal writers strive to describe a thirst that can be quenched only by gallons of this new cool aid. Meanwhile support dwindles for S&T itself, which creates the innovations that commercialization is supposed to work its magic on. Dr. Carty. NRC. The defeats continue.

Dr. Bull was a maverick, no lover of fools, driven, a pain in the ass. He went willingly into exile because he could find no like minds within the Canadian scientific establishment. They all have their doctorates, he might say, and their peer-reviewed papers and some even have useful patents, but the best have no power and the powerful toke no risks. Cocktail scientists. In the rooms they come and go, still.

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