Current issues in academia: Why we need blue-sky research

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) executive director James Turk wrote an interesting article about “Why we need blue-sky research”. The term stands for basic research that is conducted out of the researcher’s curiosity, not for a clearly defined result. Examples abound that document how blue-sky research yielded innovations of critical importance to human society and the economy.

Unfortunately, support for basic research requires long-term, strategic thinking that is rare among our politicians. In November 2011, the Ontario government cancelled the “Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence program” in the middle of a call for proposals, which over 100 groups of researchers across the province were working on. On the day of the notification, I had hired a research coordinator to help with putting together a proposal for interdisciplinary research on “Spatial Analysis and Geovisualization in the Social Sciences”. Incidentally, in the week of the ORF cancellation, premier McGuinty announced a new $20m Southwest Ontario development fund to support businesses in creating jobs. My impression from other recent news is that research funds and other support provided to for-profit companies has been found to be largely ineffective in spurring economic growth.

This insight seems equally lost on the federal government, which has mandated the research granting councils to move funds from basic research to targeted, industry-led programs. I am currently working on a proposal that would support a single partner company’s product development. This is an interesting collaboration for me, but I am convinced that the same amount of taxpayers’ money would have a greater long-term effect when invested in curiosity-driven research.