Our ragged-lab-coated philanthropists

Tim Lougheed
May 31, 2023

Generations of ardent socialists arrived at their political preference after a passionate reading of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, an account of the sad state of workers’ rights in the UK at the turn of the 20thcentury. Where Karl Marx’s stolid technical description of worker exploitation might not do the trick, this simple novel entertainingly depicted “the great money trick”, whereby labourers do capitalists a philanthropic favour by freely donating the surplus value of their work, rather than keeping it as part of their wages. The reader can easily see how owners are guaranteed to get richer, courtesy of workers, who fail to enrich themselves.

Written more than a century ago, this cautionary tale remains all too relevant for a key aspect of Canada’s current challenges in the global economy. More specifically, the book’s hard lesson surfaced as a key theme heard repeatedly at last month’s Research Money conference. Speaker after speaker grappled with our country’s unsettling record of declining economic competitiveness over several decades, along with the steady downward trend of almost every metric designed to assess our ability to nurture a research and innovation system that would build up such competitiveness.

Almost every metric, save for one. These same speakers hailed the bright light that should give us hope — Canada’s outstanding ranking as one of the world’s most highly educated societies. Our postsecondary education institutions are a cornucopia of talent, a resource that would seemingly make our economic rise to the top all the easier. And yet, here we are, sinking like a stone in comparison to countries that have made research and innovation the core of industrial policies to enhance their standard of living.

How can we have so many smart people, and make such poor progress? Perhaps they, too, have become philanthropists of a sort, enriching the rest of the world at our expense.

Michael Powell, CEO of Global Advantage Consulting Group, suggested as much during his overview of the 2023 federal budget. He noted that universities were loudly disappointed by the paucity of support the government offered them in this document. Powell asked if these institutions understand how the public regards their role, and the need to communicate the importance of what they do — developing talent, building research facilities, incubating or accelerating new businesses.

“But how does that actually apply?” Powell asked. “Where is the intentionality, outside of just publications and advancing new knowledge? Do universities understand the transition that’s occurring with this administration — focusing more on the extramural, business-focused R&D, in order to spur commercialization and development?”

Peter Frise, Associate Dean of Engineering at the University of Windsor, gave that query an even sharper focus. Noting how concern over Canada’s economic performance has for decades fueled a cottage industry of federal reports recommending more money be poured into the country’s universities, he argued “that approach hasn’t generated the results we were hoping for. Because industry under-performs R&D in Canada, all that talent doesn’t have a place to go here, so a lot of it leaves the country. Basically, we pay for their education and other countries benefit from their knowledge, experience, talent, and hard work.”

The latest in that long line of federal publications, the Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System put the matter in a different light, one that university administrators might find even more unsettling.

“To keep pace with other leading research countries, Canada requires a research and talent support system that enables connections between disciplines and the structures that Canada has created to support them (e.g., granting councils), as well as enabling connections between institutions, and researchers from across the research system, including industry, not-for-profit organizations and government,” stated the report, which was released just weeks before the Research Money conference. “Our research support system must be designed to encourage partnerships where relevant, to secure Canada’s future and enhance the impact of our investments in research.”

That was probably a long-winded way of arriving at the conclusion Frise later offered: “If you’re not creating jobs and opportunities for Canadians, then why the hell are we doing all of this? We really should be spending the money on something else.”

Universities are not necessarily to blame for this shortcoming. They are, rather, the most obvious representatives of a Canadian culture that celebrates research as a public good, which is hardly the worst of ideals. Taken to the extreme, however, it has landed us in a place where we consider research to be an end in itself, a major national undertaking we sustain at what is now a serious cost to our national well-being.

Powell’s account of the federal budget included the fact that Canada’s per capita investment in higher education is almost double that of the average for OECD countries, which — remember — are outperforming Canada in every other key measure associated with research and innovation. This statistic conveys our fetish for research and only research, conducted in settings where this activity is its own justification, and need not answer to the tawdry concerns of those who would ask how much it costs, who it is benefitting, or whether something else might be done with the money it requires.

The result is a research culture that celebrates discovery, but shuns development; honours pioneers on a scientific frontier, and ignores those who would expand it into a settled technological territory; hails an invention, and avoids the enterprises it could foster. When publicly funded Canadian research gave the world an effective Ebola vaccine in 2014, this innovation was licensed to multinational pharmaceutical companies, which were in a position to mass produce this medicine. The Public Health Agency of Canada might pride itself on retaining the intellectual property rights to this product, but they retained only the non-commercial rights, so that Canadian researchers could continue their scientific work. The business of profiting from that work — aspiring to R&D ventures that notably include the “D” — was left to others, outside of Canada.

It was unquestionably a humanitarian gesture, which just as unquestionably saved lives and contributed to the development of other medicines, saving even more lives. It was also another example — among far too many — of how we nurture a cadre of ragged-lab-coated philanthropists. You can meet them in any government lab, and especially in graduate schools, eagerly engaged in doctoral or post-doctoral work, and generally doing bloody well at it, by almost any measure. They can solve most problems you put to them, but the most vexing of all is what they will do with themselves — for only a fraction of these people will ever secure a career in the academic embrace that spawned them in the first place.

Nor are the institutions that placed them in this awkward position feeling any more comfortable. Once upon a time they might have dreamed of balancing their research grant books by cashing in on the intellectual property generated by basic research. But decades of meagre offerings from technology transfer offices have made it clear there is no easy path to adding “D” to “R”, and high profile entrepreneurs like Mike Lazaridis even regard this as a waste of academic effort.

As for what amount of effort might suffice, it is worth recalling that at the outset of the Covid pandemic, the federal government awarded some $23 million to the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization to develop a vaccine the whole world was seeking. As generous as that might sound, the US government of the day entered into a $2 billion contract with Pfizer, which ultimately provided that commercial product. Given that huge financial discrepancy, the “D” in R&D could also mean “daunting”, which is why so many researchers shy away from it.

The answer to that problem will not be found in any laboratory, but instead somewhere amid the urgent discussions amongst business and political decision-makers, who are likewise trying to figure out what to do with our expensive armada of budding philanthropists. Marx thought the matter deserved a revolution. He might not have been wrong.



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