National Column: Ottawa aims for the moon shots

by Paul Wells

One of the best little rules in Ottawa requires that public opinion research done for the government be made public after it is submitted.

When you know what the feds are polling on, it’s a pretty good proxy for knowing what they’re planning.

And so we learn that a Halifax firm spent last summer holding focus groups across Canada on a bunch of issues: carbon pricing, Canadian content rules, asbestos.

Many of the questions are about innovation, because governments love to be seen doing something to promote innovation. On this, the report, from Corporate Research Associates, suggests it is almost impossible for government to set a foot wrong.

“Participants believed that the Government of Canada plays a pivotal role in ensuring innovation happens in Canada,” the report says.

Fantastic! How? “Awareness of what the federal government is currently doing on innovation was virtually non-existent.”

Such news is bliss for policy-makers. You just don’t get such a blank public opinion cheque on most issues.

Keep it up, Ottawa, with the, you know, the helping innovation and the, uh, programs and whatever!

Where should governments innovate? Left to their own devices, participants suggested health care and education. Because those are reliably the two top-of-mind issues for most voters, answering “health care and education” to a question is the same as saying, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

Fortunately, the feds have done their own thinking.

“A moon shot challenge was described to participants,” the report says.

A what?

“An ambitious, exploratory and groundbreaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefits.”

Ah. Examples? “Examples provided to participants included driverless cars, unmanned aircraft to deliver packages … or a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to help people connect to the Internet in remote areas or during a crisis.”

What did focus group participants think? “There was some appeal for this kind of investment,” but the panels “were not keen to see the government invest in such projects if they are to profit a private enterprise.”

Participants understood this sort of thing can be risky, but could be “necessary,” but only as “a small component of government investment in innovation.”

Perhaps that lukewarm welcome will kill the Trudeau government’s moon-shot fixation. I can confirm the enthusiasm in Ottawa comes from the top: I was told last summer that Justin Trudeau is keen on “moonshots,” large spectacular projects, for enhancing Canada’s science and technology capability.

It’s hard to believe the pollster came up with the examples that were focus-grouped. Internet balloons, self-driving cars and drone delivery actually have a few things in common. One, they’re all projects being developed by X, the long-term research branch of Google. Perhaps in the next round of testing, the feds should define a “moon shot” as “something Google wants.”

Two, they’re coming along quite nicely. Balloons linked to Project Loon (the Internet scheme) keep dropping out of the sky around the world, which is unfortunate, so far harmless and a strong hint that they were at least briefly airborne. Video of delivery drone test models is easy to find online. As for the driverless cars, they’re already almost as ubiquitous as Avengers movies.

The original moon shot, you’ll recall, was John Kennedy’s plan to send Americans to the actual moon.

At the time it seemed a crazy thing, nearly infeasible, at once a mad romance and a brutal technical challenge. Backing driverless cars when the last remaining obstacle to their development is all the Internet balloons that keep falling on them seems a little … behind the curve. As though Pierre Trudeau had announced plans for a Canadian moon shot in 1970, six months after Neil Armstrong’s giant leap. Which would not, come to think of it, have come as any kind of surprise.

It is really hard for governments to come up with new ideas. Probably this is a good thing. Governments are for giving the people what they want. Mad dreamers are for giving the people something new. It is fair for government to send money to the occasional mad dreamer, on the assumption that it couldn’t hurt and often pays off nicely. This is what the science granting councils are for.

It cramps the dreamer’s style when the government also sends marching orders inspired by the cover of last month’s Popular Mechanics.

That’s another thing about moon shots: To the extent they recruit battalions of researchers away from more abstract matters, it’s not even obvious they’re good for science.

Stephen Harper spent $705 million on three Radarsat satellites that aren’t even scheduled to launch before 2018. Trudeau wanted to be different. He seems to be getting shaky advice on what “different” would look like.

One good line that often comes up at the otherwise useless near-permanent succession of weekend conferences on innovation policy is that nobody invented the electric light by improving the candle. The government spent the summer focus group testing better candles.

Uh-oh.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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