Research and Development

In their recently released Red Book 3, the Liberal government announced that they would substantially increase the funding for research and development (R/D) in Canada. I almost choked on the hypocrisy. As a semi-retired physicist in Canada's now-defunct fusion program, I have first hand knowledge in the field of high technology research.

In each election campaign since the 1960s, all political parties vowed to increase government spending on R/D from the measly 0.69% of GNP by at least a factor two, or even to the 3.5% of GNP characteristic of Japan. It has never happened and I suspect it never will.

Scientific research cannot operate on the four year election cycle of politicians. It takes many years of hard study and training for a young man or woman to become a qualified scientist in any particular area. It takes many more years to develop the scientific infrastructure within which these scientists can work. Whether it is within our universities, research establishments, or large companies, continuity is necessary.

The R/D equation requires an efficient integration of basic research, applied research and commercialization. Because of its relatively low cost and long time frame, basic research fits well into the research programs of many universities. The much more expensive applied research is perhaps best spearheaded by small or large business enterprises, in conjunction with research establishments, universities and venture capitalists.

Commercialization of a new product, the last stage of the R/D equation, is something which Canada has never done well in the past. Most of the products developed in Canada are usually commercialized in the United States. It is not clear if this will change in the global economy of the future. It is not clear that even government intervention could effect any change.

Canada's Fusion program, 1987-1997:
For a short period of time in the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Canada was a modest participant in the world controlled thermonuclear fusion program via the Tokamak de Varennes in Varennes, Quebec. Over a period of more than 10 years, Canadian scientists collaborated with fusion scientists around the world and built up world class expertise in their field. In 1997 the Minister of Science and Technology, Anne McLellan, cut the federal funding ($7.1 million), such that the program was shut down and the Tokamak dismantled. Ten years of Canadian world class expertise was instantly destroyed on the whim of a politician.

My question to Anne McLellan: "Why did the Liberal government close down Canada's fusion program, the ultimate in high technology, in 1997 and then, a scant 3 years later, promise to pour billions into high technology research?"

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