The great challenge of being politically conscious is to remain critical (one might say ‘skeptical’, although I don’t think that word means the same thing in this context that we usually mean) of propaganda and showy announcements. Whether you think politicians are cravenly trying to pull a fast one on the populace, or if you’re like me and think that politicians simply begin to think in propagandist terms, the sign of a person who is cognitively engaged with politics is the ability to parse both the positives and negatives from political announcements.
To give you an idea of the way in which I wrestle through the political landscape, here’s an example of a recent development that I found particularly interesting:
The B.C. government will announce Tuesday that it is pumping nearly $40-million into two private-public research institutes in Vancouver: $29-million for the Centre for Drug Research and Development at the University of British Columbia, and $10-million for Genome British Columbia.
But it’s the investment coming from outside the province that impresses B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong. “We see a shift happening, a global shift,” Mr. de Jong said in an interview. “We see more people recognizing that British Columbia is the bridge between Canada – and sometimes North America – and Asia.”
Roughly $1.5-billion of mainly private-sector investment has flowed into the province’s life-sciences industry in the past 18 months, including new investments in local startups such as Welichem Biotech Inc., Allon Therapeutics Inc., Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp. and Xenon Pharmaceuticals Inc., according to B.C. government figures.
The industry now employs 11,700 people in British Columbia and includes 340 companies.
So if you’re the health minister, or the minister of industry, or even the premier, this is all excellent news. You’re bringing high-paying jobs into the province – jobs that don’t rely on the traditional economy of resource exploitation (fisheries, forestry, energy), jobs that will employ university graduates with nice big fat paycheques. If you’re a resident of British Columbia, maybe one with high-school aged children, this is also excellent news – the likelihood of reliable employment in a technical field is always welcome news.
I am not at all insensitive to these arguments. Any chance you have to diversify your economy is also a chance to disaster-proof it. It’s much easier to tip over a chair that has only two or three legs. The more oars you have in the water driving your economy forward, the less momentum you lose if one of your oarsmen suddenly craps out on you. This means, ostensibly, not only more money for social services like housing and welfare, but a diminished likelihood that you’ll need to abandon your responsibilities on those things if one of your industrial bubbles bursts. In the short term, there can be major payoff for a sunk investment of $40 million.
That being said, a good government has to think of the long-term outcomes of its policies as well*. A major source of my concern comes from things like this:
Vancouver’s Centre for Drug Research and Development was created in 2007 with contributions from Ottawa and the B.C. and Alberta governments, as well as several drug companies. Its aim is to turn university research into commercially viable products. Genome B.C. invests in and manages large genetics-related research projects.
These are not scientific grants in the most ideologically liberal sense of the idea. These are research and development grants – essentially investments made in the knowledge sector with the explicit expectation of return on investment. It is essentially the government throwing its hand into the pharmaceutical development game. I don’t really have a major problem with that (despite it not always being a good idea for the government to be engaged in things best left to the private sector), but I do have a problem with government prioritizing scientific profits over scientific inquiry.
The government is the only reliable source of research funding for the types of scientific questions that don’t immediately lend themselves to marketability. There needs to be more investment in this kind of ‘pure science’, not less. These ‘grants’ are targeted at making business profitable, which is a dubious function for government to be filling so directly. Additionally, we run the risk of turning university biomedical and pharmacy programs into de facto ‘feeder schools’ to provide workers for pharmaceutical firms. While the prospect of immediate post-graduate employment is undoubtedly a good thing, I fear the further commodification of university degrees.
The other thing to be wary of is what happens when your economy becomes dependent on the pharmaceutical industry for its viability. In a stroke, pharmaceutical interests become provincial interests – what is good for the company is what is good for British Columbia. I know this threat because it happened in Quebec, the province many of these companies are abandoning. Pharmaceutical firms were able to write much of Quebec’s drug policy, rather than it being based on good evidence (which isn’t actually what informs policy anyway, but it’s nice to pretend). The bigger a slice of the total economic pie pharmaceutical companies represent, the more influence they will have. Such is the nature of all corporate interests.
If I were the premier, or rather some kind of politically omnipotent entity (since Christy Clark’s hands are tied by a whole bunch of things that will undoubtedly result in her screwing this up royally), I would take this opportunity to grow the pharmaceutical industry in the short term. After about 3 years of gestation, I would use the (hopefully) resulting middle-class tax base growth to fund the kinds of education programs that foster entrepreneurs and thinkers, ensuring that the generation coming immediately behind all of the new pharmaceutical technicians would further diversify the economy in the coming generations.
Of course, I’d do all of this after getting the drug companies to set aside a little party stash for me. After all, what good is power if you’re not going to abuse it, amirite?
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*Unless you’re a conservative government. In that case, you do as much damage as you can before getting thrown out of office, and then wait patiently for everyone to forget how awful you were when you had power.