Is new federal budget short-sighted on research?

A key point of the new federal budget — delivered in March — is the government’s push toward more applied research.

The idea, says Conservative Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid, is to propel Canada forward on the innovation front.

“We have an innovation gap in Canada where public investment in research and development (R&D) is very high, but our private investment in R&D is relatively low,” he said. “So we need to find ways through public policy to help close the innovation gap in Canada and to increase the commercialization of research and technology.”

Applied research allows moving inventions from the lab to the factory. Basic research furthers human knowledge, but cannot be as easily monetized.

The push toward more applied research may come at a cost to basic research, which may jeopardize Canada’s ability to be on the cutting edge of innovation in the long run.

“It is critically important to have strong support for applied fields that include emerging technologies, clean energy, and health-related research,” said Maydianne Andrade, Canada Research Chair and professor at the University of Toronto. “Nevertheless, the value of fundamental research is easily underestimated in such a climate.

“Research designed to serve the current needs of business or industry may lead to success over the next 10 years, but such targets can hamper the ability of fundamental research to lead to the innovations we will need in the next 20 or 50 years.”

The federal government is confident it found a good balance between the two in its latest budget.

“I think we need to balance basic and applied research,” Braid said. “The government’s funding into basic research continues to be very significant.”

Under the new federal approach to focus on the commercialization of research, the National Research Council (NRC) is directed to “refocus on business-led, industry-relevant research.”

Aiding the cooperation between universities and the private sector is important but may prove tricky, Andrade said. It can be problematic if the NRC is no longer neutral and starts focusing on the needs of business rather than on guiding and supporting publicly funded research and technology transfer, she said.

“We need to maintain our edge in basic research,” Andrade said. “I once heard this quote and it is fitting: ‘If all funding went to applied, rather than basic research, we would now be fighting wars with really sharp spears.’

“In the context of war, this may be preferable, but not in the many other contexts in which we urgently need new insight and innovation.”