Scientific quests on the firing line

A pragmatic drive to boost strategic research is theatening the future of free discovery

Mark Czarnecki October 5 1981

Scientific quests on the firing line

A pragmatic drive to boost strategic research is theatening the future of free discovery

Mark Czarnecki October 5 1981

Scientific quests on the firing line


A pragmatic drive to boost strategic research is theatening the future of free discovery

Mark Czarnecki

"If you could invent a onepiece can you’d be a millionaire,” chuckles Tom Waram, a research investigator for Stelco Inc., as he contemplates metal samples in a Pyrex beaker. His unhurried manner and open-necked shirt (no white lab coats here) quietly demolish the stereotyped image of scientists as so many

Dr. Frankensteins surrounded by guinea pigs bristling with electrodes.

Although the idea that he might be the inventor of the seamless container has probably crossed Waram’s mind, for the moment he’s happy working on an improved plastic coating for the industry’s recently released two-piece steel cans. Waram, 28, is in applied research—he focuses his scientific expertise on a specific goal that determines his methods. “I feel lucky,” says Waram. “I’m working on new products where I can put in my own ideas. Most people think a can’s a can, but a lot of thought goes into the simplest items.”

Stelco’s airy, comfortable research and development facilities nestle on a landscaped hilltop overlooking Hamilton harbor. Meanwhile, at the federal government’s research laboratories in Ottawa, another kind of scientist works in a more austere building whose pebbled glass partitions telegraph its institutional status. Here at the National Research Council (NRC), Canada’s Nobel laureate chemist, Gerhard Herzberg— in his 70s and still going strong—investigates the lifespan of triatomic hydrogen. This is an inquiry no private industry could afford to underwrite: its economic potential at present is nil, and a five-man chemistry lab costs at least $150,000 annually. Says Herzberg: “My work is very abstract, but it might eventually prove useful for some application I can’t think of at the moment.”

Science and technology today is an awesome monolith, arguably the most significant endeavor of modern man. The essence of scientific investigation is an inquiring mind like Herzberg’s, continually probing new frontiers. Less visible but equally important are applied scientists like Waram, who transform basic discoveries into useful products. Although the distinction between them is not always clear-cut, governments around the world have been forced by the insistent demands of short-term economics to weigh carefully the relative benefits of basic and applied research. As the new master of scientific imperialism, Japan presents a shining example of how applied research in specific areas such as electronics can power a nation’s economic revival. Convinced in turn that superior technology is the key to bolstering Canada’s own faltering economy, John Roberts, minister of state for science and technology, has been targeting potentially profitable areas such as natural resource products, biotechnology and telecommunications for massive infusions of federal money. Direct tax incentives may also be extended in order to boost private industry’s own research and development (R&D) spending. To many public sector scientists, however, this stress on strategic targets has grave implications: basic research in non-targeted areas may become seriously underfunded. “Who’s to know which discipline is going to provide a winner 20 years from now?” asks Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, professor of chemistry and physics at the University of Toronto. “By restricting basic science you inevitably limit your future technological options.”

The push for economic accountability comes at a time when costly neglect has driven science research and education in Canada into a state of crisis:

• Canada ranks second-lowest among

Western industrial nations in scientific research and development—a meagre 0.9 per cent of GNP (see graph).

• Funding for strategic research in support of such national priorities as transportation, energy, food and construction at the NRC has already increased 400 per cent from 1974 to 1980, while basic research funding has increased less than 40 per cent.

• Universities, the country’s major source of scientific knowledge, have also suffered from attrition. In a typical chemistry lab over the past decade, equipment funds have been reduced by 86 per cent and supply budgets by 56 per cent. A microscope worth $8,000 in 1970 now costs $30,000, and in the past five years alone the cost of lab animals has nearly doubled.

• Scientific “illiteracy” is rampant. In Ontario, only one student in three takes science courses in Grades 11 and 12.

• Canada’s future supply of qualified science teachers is in danger. The Science Council of Canada reports that full-time enrolment in math, engineering and physical science doctorate programs dropped 30 per cent

from 1974 to 1980.

Scientific inventions from the railway to the Pill have transformed society, but only recently has the acquisition of new technology been considered vital to a nation’s very survival. Limited natural resources and fierce competition for markets mean that few nations can afford to create new technologies—the rest will pay heavy penalties for their scientific underdevelopment. In Canada, many scientists are convinced the Liberals have traditionally been “antiscience” and are only now banging a different drum. As Roberts puts it, “Investment in science is the foundation of the nation’s health.”

How is this investment to be achieved? The universal prescription for national well-being seems to be: let private industry do it. “Market factors should drive research efforts,” believes Roberts, who hopes that by 1985 Canadian R&D will reach 1.5 per cent of GNP and that private industry will boost its relatively low portion of R&D investments by 15 per cent. Meanwhile, ever mindful of deficits, the federal government will slash its share of R&D expenditure by an equal amount. This reduction, coupled with the prospect of federal cutbacks on grants to the provinces for university operating costs, clearly indicates that applied research will be the first mouth fed by future R&D investment.

Although Japan’s miraculously healthy economy is continually cited as justification for these policies, a recent long-term investigation in the U.S.

could not demonstrate causal links between R&D investment and economic growth. In fact, the U.S. National Science Foundation concluded in 1979 that the government policy of targeting areas where basic research could most profitably be transferred into usable technology was a failure. Scientists simply ran out of ideas, explains planning and forecasting officer Leo Derikx, “because innovative research was being ignored;” accordingly, Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has balanced its recent push for more strategic grants in na| tional priority areas I with requests to boost I basic research. The govlernment has responded &ltwith a modest over-all ° 11-per-cent rise in uninflated dollars in NSERC’s 198182 budget.

If the panicky universities seek research funding from the provincial governments, they encounter similar policies. In B.C., the minister of universities, science and communications is Dr.

Patrick McGeer, an eminent neurologist and one of the few scientists to hold public office in Canada. McGeer echoes Roberts’ emphasis on intensive hightechnology investment and dismisses fears that basic research might be endangered. “I know of no circumstances where applied science detracts from pure science,” says McGeer. “There are many examples where it has been of benefit.”

McGeer cites crash programs like the development of new polymers by industrial giants like Dupont as examples of applied research creating spin-off discoveries. But Dr. Louis Siminovitch, chief geneticist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, points out that this kind of program would never have been possible without a solid foundation of basic science. Nor, for that matter, would the Manhattan project. The development of the atom bomb built upon advances in nuclear science accumulated over several decades by basic researchers such as Sir Ernest Rutherford, who opined in the ’20s that he could see no future use for what he was doing.

Private industry has always recognized the necessity of basic research and has a long tradition of funding universities for this purpose. But now obsolete equipment and reduced manpower are rendering university labs increasingly ineffectual. Governments are slamming the treasury gates on basic science funding. For its own good, therefore, industry must invest more in public sector research activities. The most sensational grant has been the $50 million the West German chemical giant Hoechst has given to Massachusetts General Hospital for biomedical research. In return, Hoechst has right of approval over most research projects and first refusal on all patentable processes and inventions. No Canadian company has matched this largess— although Imperial Oil, one of the country’s largest private funders of research, will distribute $600,000 to 91 projects next year.

When scientists speak out on these issues in public, they are frequently met with hostility. Why, people wonder, should scientists play around in their labs at the public’s expense, when the results are unpredictable? Decreasing faith in science’s ability to solve pressing social problems, as revealed in a recent U.S. survey, has not helped either. Ignorance of what science is all about seems to be its worst enemy, and scientists themselves tend to be closemouthed about their work. Says University of Toronto metallurgy professor Ursula Franklin, a former science policy adviser: “For all their touted objectivity, scientists often put up resistance to being examined in a critical light.”

Nevertheless, scientists would probably be better off trying to explain how science works rather than leaving the paying public mystified. Traditionally, the scientist is seen not as a theorizer but as an observer who stands aloof, allowing the universe to reveal its naked truths before his objective gaze. Sir Isaac Newton himself made this time-honored fiction respectable by saying “I do not make hypotheses,” although the popular image of Newton bonked into enlightenment by a falling apple may be closer to the truth. The history of basic research and scientific discovery is, in fact, littered with inspired random connections and insights: the 19th-century German chemist Friedrich Kekulé claimed that the

hexagon structure of the carbon atoms in benzene appeared to him in a vision as six snakes linked by their heads and tails. Today most scientists would agree with biologist Sir Peter Medawar’s statement, “Scientists are building explanatory structures, telling stories which are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life.” Such a view suggests that the practice of science is an integral aspect of culture, an act as intense and demanding as the creation of art. Some scientists therefore feel that basic research, unlike applied, should never be expected to demonstrate “pay-off” potential.

But when the breakthrough discoveries come thick and fast, the ivorytower isolation of pure research is

quickly overwhelmed in the rush to the patent office. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the burgeoning field of gene splicing, which is rapidly becoming a paradigm of the dangers inherent in allowing private industry unlimited access to the basic research lab. No sooner has another gene been mapped or a new splicing enzyme discovered than a commercial application pops out of the test tube. In the U.S., virtually every top-level university gene splicer either works as a corporate consultant or owns shares in biotech companies such as Genentech, Biogen and Cetus for fear that others will reach the Swiss bank first with genetically engineered millions.

Alarms are already sounding, however. “When the scientific goals give way to competitive goals, the joys of innovation and discovery are drastically affected,” says Siminovitch. Stanford University President Donald Kennedy has testified before a congressional subcommittee that the secrecy surrounding possible commercial applications is impeding the free exchange of biological materials and information necessary to basic research in a community of scholars. Hoping to capitalize on their professors’ discoveries, Harvard and Stanford have considered incorporating their own companies. After heated debate concerning the possible consequences of such a move—“publish or perish” might soon be replaced by the equally pernicious “patent or perish”—both universities decided their academic freedom would be compromised and scotched the proposals.

The confusion of curiosity with commercial self-interest raises thorny ethical issues. For example, biotechnologists have been acutely aware of how powerful gene splicing tools are and regulations in most countries still forbid genetic engineering on human subjects. More quickly than anyone had foreseen, however, a contravention arose this spring with the unsanctioned implantation of recombined genes in the bone marrow of two patients in Israel and Italy who had been diagnosed as incurably ill. The scientist in question, oncologist Dr. Martin Cline of the University of California, was severely censured for unethical practices.

Cline maintains he was acting in the best interests of his patients and society, thereby reviving the age-old debate about an individual scientist’s responsibility for the application of his own research. How objective will scientists be if their loyalties lie partially with private industries benefiting from potentially hazardous technology? The question becomes more urgent when government itself declares that the economy comes first. A case in point is the environment. When government

scientists first learned about the effects of acid rain, they filed it away and joined industry in actively discounting their own research. This happened at least a decade before the current crusade to downplay environmental issues in the name of the economy. If government was so slow to react then, what will happen now that basic research in sensitive areas (notably energy and defence) is increasingly funded by industry?

As the Cline incident showed, biotechnologists must often make quick decisions about applying their discoveries. Yet when scientists shy away from these ethical issues, the application of science then becomes the responsibility of government or industry. The tragedy in such a disengagement deeply affected certain physicists working on the Manhattan project— among them Bernard Feld, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I believed in the project because I thought we had to do it to end the war,” recalls Feld. “When they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima I thought, thank God, it’s over. Then they dropped it on Nagasaki and I knew I’d been had.” Feld now insists on having a voice in the application of his research and has become actively involved in alerting the world to the dangers of the nuclear

arms race through his journal, The Bul\ letin of the Atomic Scientists.

The difficulty in deciding who should control the application of basic research is intensified by an educational system that produces overspecialized “experts” reluctant to apply their expertise in the ■ context of larger social issues. Franklin criticizes this pursuit of knowledge, power and status at society’s expense. “A scientist is a citizen with a toolbox,” she says. “Because of their eagerness to get tools into their box they ignore the citizen. You need general purpose tools, not ones that won’t open doors.”

A basic research centre such as the NRC or a university remains one of the few places where the broadening of individual perspectives is possible. “At the university the cross-linking of disciplines is our life,” says KenneyWallace. “Certainly mission-oriented research is more readily funded, but here you can cultivate a group of people who can help you follow through your ideas. That’s why we stay.” The fruits of such top-level cross-fertilization can be momentous though often unpredictable. Important breakthroughs may depend on the fortuitous meeting of minds. The famous double helix molecular structure of DNA was finally discovered after a decade of intensive and costly research on both sides of the Atlantic largely because a geneticist, James Watson, happened to team up with a biochemist, Francis Crick, in a lab where a crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, had just perfected a new technique of determining molecular structure by x-ray diffraction. It is precisely this kind of random alchemy that may be threatened in the current

rush to reap a technological harvest.

Whatever their views on the commercialization of free research, scientists agree on one point: pre-university science education is in a deplorable state and must be revised, whether it is providing for the future scientist or the generally informed layman. Until now science education has been the responsibility of inadequately trained general teachers at the public school levels and overspecialized experts at the senior and &lt university levels. Says 5 David Suzuki, professor £of genetics at the University of British Columbia and host of the CBC’s £ The Nature of Things: “Science should be as mainstream as the three ’Rs—the educational system has to change. The public has an enormous voice and it’s the parents who have to be shown that their kids are being shortchanged. Science is too important to be left to experts.”

A solid grounding in science for the general public is not the only concern; the pressure is on to provide manpower for industry—engineers and computer scientists especially. “The government’s recommendations for increased industrial involvement in R&D aren’t going to happen on their own,” says Jack McKay, head of R&D at Stelco Inc. “The policy will make great demands on capi-

tal—and even if the money is available, where are the trained people?” New curriculum guidelines at the senior high school level tend to emphasize technical skills that will make students marketable in specific areas such as food, energy and shelter. “Kids have absolutely no contact with basic research,” objects Siminovitch. “They don’t even know there is such a thing. Mainly they’re concentrated on careers.” One of the reasons, simply put, is that industry pays more. A graduate with a B.Sc. will start off in industry at more than $20,000—about what a PhD graduate will initially receive at the NRC or a university. Squeezes on grant funding are infamous. Says U of T’s Franklin: “When a prospective research student sees a respected professor running around with a begging bowl to keep himself and his students alive, naturally the student thinks, ‘Why should I take a PhD?’ ”

The answer used to be a love of science, and, with all their deficiencies, schools can still provide a congenial environment for budding scientists. Take 18-year-old Heather Peniuk of Winnipeg, whose research on the common cold recently won her a $6,000 award from the Edison-McGraw Foundation. Peniuk has parlayed a rock collection (begun at age 3) and a lifelong interest in science into a scholarship at McGill University and a hefty dose of biotech savvy—her prize money will be invested in lab materials and patent applications. But not all scientists are mystically called into the lab after years of rock, rat and hamster collecting. More typical are researchers like metallurgy graduate Pat Burke, a colleague of Tom Waram’s at Stelco. Burke, 27, arrived by an indirect route: he wanted to be a farmer, acquired his science degree but spent five years in the post office before going to Stelco.

With job slots in industry a top government priority, pre-university science education administrators are clearly having trouble turning out wellinformed, dedicated scientists who might find basic research a satisfying career. And while public sector scientists everywhere struggle with the resurgent god Mammon, it is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is re-trying Galileo in an effort to redeem its public image as science’s greatest enemy. But acquitting Galileo will not help the spirit of free discovery now, threatened as it is by forces far more powerful than the church. In the words of science writer Horace Freeland Judson, “The clarity of the moment of discovery, the beauty of what in that moment is seen to be true about the world, is the most fundamental attraction that draws scientists on.” At stake today is nothing less than the opportunity to experience that moment,