Uncertainty in scientific research

The subject of ‘uncertainty’ as an element of scientific research has come up for discussion several times over the years. Is scientific research, perhaps, just about discovering new scientific knowledge or principles, increasing the extent of knowledge through the application of sound scientific methodologies? Or is uncertainty a necessary element, as it clearly is in the case of  experimental development? Development in the absence of uncertainty would not be experimental. But work such as investigation of physical and chemical properties of nanoparticles, or space exploration, is certainly generally regarded as scientific research even when the tools and methodologies used are standard ones.

The Income Tax Act provides no guidance; uncertainty is not part of the definition of SR&ED. CRA’s published guidance material, including 86-4R3, has consistently included uncertainty as an element of scientific research. The Eligibility paper states unequivocally that “There is scientific uncertainty in basic research or applied research”. It’s in the succession of T661 forms and guides that the uncertainty regarding uncertainty has shown up.

Until 2008, the T661 form always asked for information on uncertainty, sometimes referred to as ‘problems or challenges’, for all projects. Then, with the re-design of the T661 form, a clear distinction was required to be made between projects for scientific research and for experimental development, with no question on uncertainty for scientific research projects. This lasted for five years, only to be abruptly reversed with the latest revision of the T661. Now, uncertainty is once more a required element of a scientific research project. (How will this be handled at review, for projects completed under the old rules? Will claimants now be expected to produce contemporaneous evidence of uncertainty?) 

This equivocation raises a question; How can CRA continue to treat as irrelevant to this type of discussion the opinions of program users who are engaged in scientific research or experimental development on a daily basis?