The curious science of curiosity

Stewart MacLeod,Allan Fotheringham January 6 1986

The curious science of curiosity

Stewart MacLeod,Allan Fotheringham January 6 1986

The curious science of curiosity


Stewart MacLeod

Not long ago, New Democrat MP Jim Fulton stood in his place, which is Parliament, and expressed a sort of outraged wonderment over the fact that the government was spending $6,000 on “research relating to the development of methods of testing and analysis of pencils.”

He seemed to harbor a profound belief that the government, by shopping around, could have gotten a better price. And at first blush one would tend to agree that, considering the fact that the familiar pencil has been around since 1564, the world should now have a sufficient collective knowledge of the instrument.

But we’ll never know. When the federal government decides to “contract out” on these research and development projects, it’s well-nigh impossible for a poor overwhelmed taxpayer to see the justification or, for that matter, the results.

I mean, if you had stumbled across that $73,000 contract a couple of years ago for an “investigation of the causes of cariability in ovarian responses to gonadotropins and of failure of fertilization and of early embryonic loss following superovulation,” would you have challenged its worthiness? Would $73,000 look like a bargain?

For all I know it’s the steal of the century and the project may well revolutionize whatever it pertains to, but you and I will never be sure. And we’re not talking chicken feed here; these contracts have been running at about $350 million a year or, for the sake of comparison, about four times the cash put up for the sale of de Havilland Aircraft to new American owners.

The scientific community may be extremely upset with the Mulroney government’s cutbacks in this area, but between last April and November there were still 2,274 research contracts awarded, with an average value of $56,522. In the same period of 1984 the total was 2,674 with an average value of $59,906. In other words, they are still available.

And regardless of how carefully the projects are screened—quite a number of the contracts stem from unsolicited proposals—it’s probably safe to conclude that the odd clunker sneaks by. For instance, I’ve long nurtured suspi-

Stewart MacLeod is national columnist for Thomson News Service.

cions about that $35,000 contract for the “development of a partial pressure waistcoat.” That strikes me as something that deserved a few questions.

In Washington, where the U.S. government has a similar interest in some rather obscure projects, there is an outfit called the National Taxpayers Union which expresses measured outrage from time to time over oddball contracts. It was not at all pleased with a $100,000 contract, given to a Columbia University professor, for “an analysis of the electoral processes operating in Imperial Russia between 1906 and 1914” or for that obviously separate study, worth $35,000, into “the sex lives of scorpion flies and the extent to which food availability determines how males compete among themselves for females.”

By merely poking fun at a sponsoring government agency—whether fair or not—it would serve to discourage

Know it or not, Canadian taxpayers have paid for deep research into ‘flatus factors in dry beans'

unnecessary undertakings. But every month hundreds of these contracts are awarded in Ottawa, and, unless a Jim Fulton elects to toss one out in Parliament, the list automatically slips through disinterested hands like an out-of-date train schedule.

Actually, I once made a serious effort to follow up on a $25,414 research project into “esthetic motivation”—it had something to do with why we like to look at things—but further explanations quickly suffocated me.

I think I did grasp the significance of a $10,000 study into “the reverse direction of barbed wire along the top perimeter, of a security fence,’’but why bother getting too scientific? After all, that’s peanuts compared with the $251,000 spent at the same time for the “development and cultivation of Jerusalem artichokes for an energy crop.”

Bet you didn’t know that just two years ago you helped finance a $38,000 research project called “a wave study on West Indies routes,” something that Mr. Columbus could have cheerfully used 494 years ago. It was a mite more than the $28,000 we spent the

previous year for “finite element analysis of storm surges in the Bay of Bengal,” but it was no doubt worth the difference. For all I can recall, storm surges in the Bay of Bengal might have been an in subject back then —although it’s becoming difficult to remember anything prior to AIDS, tuna and Toronto’s domed stadium.

Hey, how about $88,000 for a “study of the detectability of tracks in snow”? And I know we’re talking petty cash here, but did we really need an $11,700 probe into “the impact of dumped mud on the Dungeness crab”? I mean, just how often is mud dumped on the Dungeness crab?

Personally, I am more comfortable with that three-year-old contract given to a Laval university professor for an “improvement in the spreadability of butter.” I haven’t yet seen the lab results, but if he tells us to warm the butter to room temperature, chances are we’ve been had.

Other contracts, taken at random from the past few years, which a Canadian Coalition Against Curious Contracts might want to question, include: $223,000 “to evaluate urban road dust as a source of suspended particles”; $103,000 for a “feasibility analysis of the proposed Canadian biting fly centre”; $19,646 for the “remote sensing determination of head lettuce maturity”; $18,000 for a “histological comparison of wieners and uncooked batters”; and $19,750 for an “analysis of the scenarios on the role of the automobile.” Just wait until we are told its primary role is transporting Jerusalem artichokes.

Who knows, if the coalition wanted to follow the progress of these programs, it could conceivably get a government research grant itself. After all, someone did get $16,000 to study the “macro-economic impacts of diffusion of information technology.” And who’s to say that didn’t cover similar ground? Someone else managed to get much more—$36,000 in fact—to study the “flatus inducing factors in dry beans.”

There is no indication we tried to lower research costs by urging other countries to join us in these projects. Anyway, while the Americans have their own pet project—Star Wars—we obviously have ours. It’s just that no one out there seems to be paying much attention.

Allan Fotherinyham is on vacation.