When shipbuilding contracts fund microscopic research

Investment from industry can alter the course of scientific research

Ocean science research at Dalhousie sees a lot of industry partnership from small, local businesses.
Ocean science research at Dalhousie sees a lot of partnership from small, local businesses.   Grace Kennedy

Julie LaRoche just bought a $60,000 holographic microscope.

LaRoche was planning a long-term study of the plankton in Nova Scotia, but she didn’t have enough money to finance it until now.

Luckily, LaRoche was one of nine researchers awarded funding from the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR) and Irving Shipbuilding.

LaRoche bought her microscope with the $149,900 her research group received. She’ll put it on the Atlantic Condor, a ship that makes weekly trips to the Deep Panuke drilling platform off Sable Island.

For most people, money means independence – the ability to do what you want without relying on someone else. For science, it’s a little more complicated.

Funding often comes from public agencies like the Dalhousie-based MEOPAR, but it also comes from private enterprises like Irving Shipbuilding – enterprises that can influence the direction and outcomes of scientific research.

Dalhousie and private capital

Dalhousie University is Atlantic Canada’s leading research university: it receives 76 per cent of the private funding in Atlantic Canada, according to Dalhousie’s Industry Liaison and Innovation department.

Usually, Dalhousie has between 300 and 400 industry partners, the department said.

The applied faculties, such as engineering and computer science, have the largest number of industry partners, while the faculty of medicine gets the most money from industry partners.

Money first, then research

Over the years, industry has become the largest funder of science in Canada. Since 1975, the proportion of business-funded science has gone from 35 per cent to almost 50 per cent.

Science funding by source
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All avenues of funding have the ability to influence scientific discourse, but industry is particularly influential.

Carlos Mariscal, philosopher of science at Dalhousie, uses the example of the tobacco industry.

“The tobacco companies funded a lot of research – probably a lot of good research,” Mariscal said.

“The problem is we didn’t see all of the research.”

Tobacco companies funded science that did not focus on the health problems of cigarettes – it was used as a smokescreen to cover science that did show the health problems of cigarettes.

“The fact that science is so powerful, it might be the kind of thing that one has to rein in from private hands otherwise all hell could break loose,” said Gordon McOuat, a history of science professor at the University of King’s College.

Irving Shipbuilding and MEOPAR

In order to do scientific research, you need money – but not all businesses want to control the outcome of research.

“It’s very easy to oversimplify the relationship between industry and science. But in fact, there could be a number of motivations,” Mariscal said. “There are industries that for idealistic reasons decide to fund certain sciences.”

“The fact that science is so powerful, it might be the kind of thing that one has to rein in from private hands otherwise all hell could break loose” – Gordon McOuat

Irving might not fund science for idealistic reasons, but it is following what McOuat says is its “civic duty.”

As part of the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, Irving Shipbuilding has to follow the strategy’s Value Proposition. It has to put 0.5 per cent of its revenue from contracts – about $12 million currently – back into Canada’s marine industry.

Over the course of the procurement strategy, Irving Shipbuilding will support human resource development, technology, commercialization and research.

Irving Shipbuilding made no demands on the research projects it funded with the Dalhousie-based MEOPAR.

“It’s not like Irving Shipbuilding is going to change the way they’re building ships because the plankton were different in November,” said Janet Stalker, the communications manager for MEOPAR.

“But it is something that it’s improving our body of knowledge and our general understanding of the oceans in Canada that will circle back and eventually trickle down to have benefits to the larger marine industries.”

Where does that leave us?

LaRoche’s research is heavily intertwined with J.D. Irving – the company that owns Atlantic Towing (the owner of the Atlantic Condor) and Irving Shipbuilding.

But that doesn’t mean it changes the way she does her work.

“We’re all very independent,” LaRoche said.

“I can see with pharmaceutical, if you find that some drug doesn’t work and then it’s bad for the pharmaceutical company,” she continued.

“But here there’s no link between the research that I’m doing and Irving – except that maybe in the future they will see that (using commercial ships) is a good way to monitor the ocean.”

Independence is important to science. It’s easier to achieve when research has no effect on the company that is funding it. But it is important to seek when there is a bias because of funding.

The history of science is full of these sorts of biases. Mandated research, Ian Stewart, a history of science professor at the University of King’s College, called it.

This has directed science since Aristotle, but science only moves forward when the pressure of mandated research is lifted.

“Absolutely crucial to the progress of science have been periods and people within those periods where there wasn’t that pressure,” Stewart said.

“It’s a kind of dance between work done out of sheer scientific curiosity and a desire to know, and its application in the field.”

A brief history of science and business

Science and private capital have been together a long time, but the relationship really took off with Francis Bacon.

“Some people would hold that the birth of modernity and the birth of modern science is intertwined with the rise of capitalist ventures,” said McOuat.

Since the 1980s, McOuat said, neoliberal economics has forced science to become more focused on innovation. Research that produces profitable results is prioritized over fundamental discoveries.

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