Should we ease up a bit on the criticism of the JOI investment?

I was a bit taken aback by all the outrage over the New Brunswick government’s investment in JOI Scientific. The company was developing a green energy technology. Now I have no insight into the technology and no particular comment on whether or not NB Power or RDC should have provided funding.  However, IMO, if the outrage over this R&D investment was applied to all government funding for R&D projects, public investment in R&D would grind to a halt.

Investing in R&D is completely different than investing in a firm expansion. If you traced the funding under the NB Health Research Foundation or the Atlantic Innovation Fund or any other government agency that funds research, you would find many projects that did not lead to any new intellectual property (IP).

I am not suggesting JOI should not have been reported.  On the contrary I think there should be full and open disclosure of public investments  – in companies, in R&D, in university R&D, etc. – the good, the bad and the ugly.  My only caveat is that the reporting, and the subsequent commentary by experts, should be clear with the public that government (or in this case government and NB Power) knew going in there was a risk this investment would not bear fruit, by definition.

Canada is criticized in some circles for spending too little on R&D as a share of GDP.

Think about the millions lost on tidal energy research in the Bay of Fundy by Nova Scotia and the federal government. Was that a tragedy?   Are there experts expressing their outrage as with JOI?

Again, I don’t have any first hand knowledge of the JOI project, technology and everything that happened.

But in general I think we need to be clear with the public about the difference between an investment in a company to expand in New Brunswick versus an investment in a company to do further research into a new technology.

6 thoughts on “Should we ease up a bit on the criticism of the JOI investment?

  1. On the one hand, there’s spending on R&D grounded in rigorous peer-reviewed research. On the other hand, there’s gambling on extraordinary claims so redolent of known (and notorious) pseudo-science, so completely disconnected from the mainstream of peer-reviewed research, and so totally shrouded in proprietary secrecy that any scientifically literate investor would have had little reason to believe that the proposed technology wasn’t tantamount to a perpetual motion machine. And now, if the CBC’s anonymous source is to be believed, the secret patents really did (uncritically) cite the patents of a notorious crank?

  2. But far more to the point, given everything that’s come out on the CBC, we now seem to have even less reason to believe that the proposed technology wouldn’t have to violate the laws of thermodynamics to perform as originally claimed. And that’s the fundamental reason for the public opprobrium—it wasn’t a gamble that failed, it was a bet that probably should never have been placed to begin with for real *scientific* reasons.

  3. I guess the difference between NB Health Research Foundation funded projects and this one would be that experts review the proposals funded through the research foundation and if NB Power had done the same they would have been told that what the company was saying was impossible. Another huge difference is the size of the investment that means it warranted a higher level of scrutiny than you would for say a university profs request for $1M for equipment for their lab. So maybe the outrage is just a little bit justified?

  4. I think the JOI investment is attracting so much public scorn because the company’s claims are, to be blunt, so self-evidently bogus. Their patents claimed to generate hydrogen at 200% efficiency which, if true, would completely rewrite the laws of physics but were more likely (to anyone who’s taken a high school physics class) totally false. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, we obey they laws of thermodynamics in this province.

    I agree this shouldn’t be used as a club to bludgeon research and development with. And some of the paths taken with that R&D will not be fruitful, short or long term, and I for one am willing to accept a few failures as the cost of success. But between the claims in the patents and some of the other characters involved in this project (like pseudoscientist and discredited water-powered car “inventor” Stanley Meyer), there were a couple of very large red flags with this project. It looks to me like NB Power failed to use due diligence here.

  5. The outrage isn’t really about R & D, but about due diligence – basic scientific laws were broken by their claims of 200% efficiency, however nobody in either NB Power or in economic development who funded this apparently sought counsel from a scientific body on whether or not this was theoretically possible to begin with before making that investment. They essentially invested in a perpetual motion machine.

    Point being – of course investment in R & D is not going to work out a lot of the time, however if those making those investments do not have the faculties to assess even the most basic of risks (such as – what investments violate the laws of thermodynamics), they should not be investing in scientific discovery.

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