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The Science Funded by Your Tax Dollars

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Scientific research is typically conducted within one of three different settings: universities, federal and provincial government laboratories or industry. Different overarching mandates govern research in each of these sectors.

University research is typically curiosity-driven. Individual researchers seek to answer scientific questions that interest them. They submit research grant proposals to federal funding agencies in the hope that they will convince their peers that these research questions and proposed methodologies are sound and worthy of support. Each individual research grant typically lasts between two and five years.

A successful university researcher will have to juggle several research projects with each one on its own funding cycle. Most university researchers are required to get all of their research support through external grants and have little, if any, ongoing direct research funding from their institutions. Over the years, their research interest will move from area to area as they seek to explore new scientific issues. However, it is this curiosity-driven research that typically leads to the greatest scientific discoveries.

One of the most important outcomes of university-based research is the training it provides for both graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. These so-called highly qualified personnel (HQP) take their knowledge and skills into the workplace upon completion of their degrees or fellowship terms. Both industry and government rely upon these university-trained scientists to fill the ranks of their own scientific staff. A consequence of the short term funding cycles and continuous turnover of HQP is that academic researchers are usually not able to sustain long term monitoring programs or dedicate many years to a single project. This niche is filled by scientific research conducted in the federal and provincial government laboratories.

Federal and provincial government research is almost always targeted and mission-oriented. For example, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia is Canada's largest oceanographic research facility. This federal government laboratory houses researchers from a number of federal departments: Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), Environment Canada (EC) and National Defense (DND).

BIO is charged with providing,

"advice and support to government decision making on a broad range of ocean issues, including sovereignty, safety and security, environmental protection, the health of the oceans, safe and accessible waterways, the sustainable use of natural resources (fisheries, minerals, oil & gas) and the integrated management large ocean management areas."

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has 19 research centres across Canada each with their own different focus. In St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Atlantic Cool Climate Crop Research Centre has a mission to "develop technologies which diversify and add value to rural economies in cool summer regions."

On the other hand the Brandon Research Centre in Manitoba is an experimental farm that

"conducts research on crop production, including fertilization requirements of crops, ecology and control of weeds, biology and management of crop diseases, genetics and breeding of barley, management of pastures and cattle, land resource management, and impacts of agriculture on the environment."

While university research is usually curiosity-driven and government science typically focuses on research in service of society, industry research has a different set of motivators. Industry research is normally conducted in order to sustain market competitiveness or to increase shareholder value.

The taxpayer ultimately pays for research conducted or funded by the government. Shareholder investments and corporate loans or profits provide the income source for industry resource. As a consequence, university and government research is expected to be publicly available, unless it is considered classified or secret as in the case of some research that might be conducted within the Department of National Defense.

Industry research is less open. For example, the taxpayer should expect to have access to the results from federally funded health research on potential side effects of a particular drug. However, a start up biomedical drug company would likely not want to publicly disclose all of its research until patents protected its products. What would a company do if its internal research determined that its products or actions were harmful to people or the environment? Would the company want to publicly disseminate this research? Should it be required to do so? What are its current legal requirements do so? What does fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders suggest that the company should do?

The distinction between public and privately funded research becomes blurry in the area of university-industry partnerships. University researchers are almost always asked to sign confidentiality agreements when they engage in research in collaborative projects with industry. Yet very often, industry contributions to a research program are matched by funds from government granting agencies. It is difficult to determine what if any of this research should be publicly available.

Whether scientific research is undertaken in industry, government or university based facilities, it makes little difference as to its role in the formulation of policy.

Science can never be used to prescribe a particular policy. However, science is able to examine the implications of various policy options. Policy can also be developed or modified to reflect the latest science. In the end, the formulation of policy requires engaging a variety of stakeholders including special interests, religious groups, and industry. It also requires dealing with ethical, political, legal, financial and social issues including any potential application of the precautionary principle.

Science should feed into policy discussions, but in and of itself science cannot and should not dictate what policy directions should be taken. At the same time, science and scientific uncertainty should not be deliberately misrepresented or suppressed by special interests in order to influence public policy in a particular direction.