(The following is a slightly edited version of an invited post appearing on The Inside Agenda Blog on TVO‘s web space.)

Canada retreats from Science

Canada is retreating from investment in science and engineering. Public letters (by 10 prominent physicists, 336 mathematicians, 49 leading researchers) have signaled alarms at changes to the NSERC Discovery Grants Program and the elimination of the Major Resources Support (MRS) and Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) programs. Investments in the training of the next generation of researchers through the Postdoctoral Fellowships Program have been slashed.
NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship Investment over time
Without funds to operate laboratories, without funds for new tools, and without funds for young researchers, Canada’s science and engineering research enterprise faces disaster.

Mission Drift

The program cuts are not driven by a decrease in the budget to NSERC. The program cuts are instead the result of a transfer of funds away from people and discovery into new programs giving money to businesses, a transformation characterized by the recent report of the federal R&D panel as “mission drift.” The Engage Program, described by NSERC President Suzanne Fortier as spawning business-academy “first dates” provides an illustration. Consider the details of the program:

  • NSERC provides $25K of taxpayer funds to pay for a six-month research and development project between a university researcher and a company already involved in research and development.
  • The company is not required to invest any money on the project.
  • Any intellectual property developed by the project is owned by the company.
  • There is no direct return back to taxpayers, to the university researcher, or to the university on the investment.

The program description reports that “these grants are intended to foster the development of new research partnerships between an academic researcher and a company that have never collaborated together before.” However, the Engage Program does not appear to be producing robust collaborative partnerships. There have been cool anecdotes about ski goggles and fiber optic guitar pickups but insufficient reporting on the program as a whole. Recently, in response to an inquiry from the official opposition regarding the conversion rate of Engage grants into the more substantial Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grants, NSERC reported:

“348 distinct researchers have received both Engage grants and Collaborative Research and Development grants since these programs have operated, and this without regard to the years or the order in time. This number represents 10.62% of the total number of grantees for these two programs.”

This is a confusing statement and does not accurately reveal how many Engage Grants matriculated to become CRD projects. NSERC President Fortier has written that

“Nearly a thousand Canadian companies have benefited from the Engage experience to date.”

This represents an investment of $25,000,000. From a program level perspective, and not just anecdotally, what was achieved?

NSERC Budget Changes

Despite announcements to the contrary by NSERC and Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear, the evidence shows that NSERC and the NRC (now described as a “business concierge”) are transfering funds away from “blue sky” basic research programs to Canadian businesses through programs like Engage.

Inadequate Consultation

Major changes in NSERC funding have often involved the research community through a long range plan (LRP) consultation. Long range plans for Subatomic Physics and Astronomy were recently completed; the LRP for Mathematics/Statistics is close to completion. The LRP consultation process activates a nationwide discussion by a community of researchers, contributes scientific input to the federal research investment strategy, and, in some cases, identifies opportunities for cost savings. The broad consultation of the LRP process respectfully empowers researchers to contribute to the policy discussions affecting them and, ultimately, all of Canada.

In contrast, there was no broad consultation in advance of the recent decisions to eliminate the Major Resource Support (MRS) and Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) programs. Shortly after University of Ottawa Chemistry Professor David Bryce’s letter and related public messages appeared, Minister Goodyear announced that these actions would only be a moratorium for one year as the government “seeks counsel” from the scientific community. Minister Goodyear’s remarks were reassuring but the terms of the RTI consultation have turned out to be much more narrow in scope. Instead of seeking creative input from the Canadian scientific community on how best to consolidate the “plethora of programs” and to “simplify the application process,” the consultation asks scientists and engineers to choose between Option 1 (rock) and Option 2 (hard place).

Canada was and can be a spectacular place for scientific and engineering studies. Canada had a research investment strategy that was once the “envy of the world.” Rapid policy changes with inadequate participation by the research community in the decision process threaten Canada’s long-term prosperity.

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Budget 2012 continues to shift Canadian federal investment away from basic research toward industrial applied research. This shift is politically expedient: the redirection of funds can be discussed with tantalizing justifications based on job creation, targeted investment, streamlining discovery, and so forth. The shift resonates with a public concerned about frivolous expenditures of dollars collected through taxation. The late Senator from Wisconsin, William Proxmire, advanced this line of political rhetoric by issuing Golden Fleece Awards for science projects he lampooned as unworthy of government investment. Why should the government waste taxpayer money so that scientists can pursue their curiosity? Although slightly slanted with the operative verb “waste”, this is an entirely reasonable question which the scientific community must strive to answer.

Why should the government invest in basic research?

This question was eloquently answered by Vannevar Bush in his report Science: The Endless Frontier to President Roosevelt from July 1945. After my reading of the 2012 Budget, I thought it timely to share some relevant extractions (all emphasis added):

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science. (p. 16)

The simplest and most effective way in which the Government can strengthen industrial research is to support basic research and to develop scientific talent. (p. 17)

One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance. Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind. Statistically it is certain that important and highly useful discoveries will result from some fraction of the undertakings in basic science; but the results of any one particular investigation cannot be predicted with accuracy. (p. 15)

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected. (p. 15)

Industrial incentive systems are misaligned with basic research

Basic research is the soil from which “innovation” and “commercialization” grow. Where should these foundational studies take place? Should they be carried out by industry or by some cleverly designed industrial-academic partnership? The answers according to Vannevar Bush are illuminating. The incentive systems for industry are rarely aligned with basic research. (A notable exception was Bell Labs, where scientists free to explore basic research produced stunning advances.)

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory. There are some notable exceptions, it is true, but even in such cases it is rarely possible to match the universities in respect to the freedom which is so important to scientific discovery. (p. 16)

Research is the exploration of the unknown and is necessarily speculative. It is inhibited by conventional approaches, traditions, and standards. It cannot be satisfactorily conducted in an atmosphere where it is gauged and tested by operating or production standards. Basic scientific research should not, therefore, be placed under an operating agency whose paramount concern is anything other than research. Research will always suffer when put in competition with operations. (p. 26)

The benefits of basic research do not reach all industries equally or at the same speed. Some small enterprises never receive any of the benefits. (p. 17)

Budget 2012 and the prior decade of mission drift

Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the federal investment in science. The new system aims to industrialize the research activities of university and government scientists. Commercialization, innovation, job creation, whatever you want to call it, is a preconceived goal which constrains the freedom necessary for the unanticipated, the disruptive breakthroughs brought by basic research advances. Despite the recent assurances by Ministers Flaherty and Goodyear that “blue sky” research will continue to receive federal investment, there has been a steady shift toward a system with explicit commercialization incentives instead of one with the freedom open to transformational discovery.

The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere. (p. 10)

The history of medical science teaches clearly the supreme importance of affording the prepared mind complete freedom for the exercise of initiative. It is the special province of the medical schools and universities to foster medical research in this way – a duty which cannot be shifted to government agencies, industrial organizations, or to any other institutions. (p. 13)

 

Canada’s Research Policy is Misaligned with Scientist’s Incentives

The intense desire to deeply understand is the incentive for scientists, especially young scientists, to carry out research. Newton did not have to anticipate the industrialization of space to justify his study of gravity. Darwin did not have to anticipate applications of his studies in the pharmaceutical industry. Einstein did not have to forecast the Global Positioning System to justify investment in the theory of relativity. Canadian scientists aren’t free to pursue their breakthroughs. Instead, we are expected to cultivate relationships with industrial partners through government funded “first dates” and plan commercialization of our ideas in advance of their discovery. Instead of the freedom to pursue the curiosity that emerged from tens of thousands of hours of study, NRC scientists have been promoted and can now play the role of “business concierge”.

Where will these new products come from? How will we find ways to make better products at lower cost? The answer is clear. There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise. There must be plenty of men and women trained in science and technology for upon them depend both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. (p. 15)

To serve effectively as the centers of basic research these institutions must be strong and healthy. They must attract our best scientists as teachers and investigators. They must offer research opportunities and sufficient compensation to enable them to compete with industry and government for the cream of scientific talent. (p. 16)

The federal government’s research incentive system is no longer aligned with the intrinsic motivations of scientists.

 


Further Resources

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Dear James,

 

Thank you for this opportunity to respond to your recent blog posting on Perimeter Institute and offer some clarifications.

  • First, the comparisons of support for different institutions and programs presented in this posting mix total funding over time (including endowment contributions) with annual budgets and ignore substantial differences between their operations.  For example, Perimeter Institute currently houses over 140 full-time trainees and researchers (from Masters students to senior faculty) whereas to my knowledge the Fields Institute has none.
  • Second, this blog post juxtaposes received funding with cultural events at Perimeter and implies that public monies are used to support ancillary activities, which is not accurate.   Cultural and social events are supported through paid ticketing as well as private donations. Public funds are strictly allocated to the purpose for which they are intended: to support the research, training and educational outreach programs of the Institute.

You and your blog readers may be interested to know that a recent third party evaluation of Perimeter Institute’s cost-effectiveness was conducted by KPMG, as part of a comprehensive audit required as a condition of our government funding. The final report, available on our website, states “PI has designed and implemented practices and processes that promote economy and efficiency in the use of resources and that are effective in supporting the achievement of PI objectives and expected results.”

In closing, let me emphasize that Perimeter Institute takes very seriously its commitment to promoting basic scientific research in a collaborative manner with universities and other institutions across Ontario and Canada. In this context, Perimeter serves as an example of a successful public-private partnership which is helping to energize and strengthen the entire scientific community.

 

Sincerely,

 

Neil Turok

 

Director, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

 

Efforts to understand the foundational issues of theoretical physics have been made by scientists over millennia. Human beings are naturally curious: we want to deeply understand nature. With pioneering insights by Aristarchus and Archimedes, Copernicus and Kepler and, more recently, Dirac and Feynman, humans have made spectacular advances. The benefits of basic research investigations cascade into fundamental improvements for humans living on earth. Visionary investors, like the Duke of Braunschweig Charles William Ferdinand in the eighteenth century and Mike Lazaridis of today, have recognized the virtues of investing in basic research. Leaders like Alexander von Humboldt, John Charles Fields, and Vannevar Bush helped define frameworks for governments to support basic research.

Half a Billion Dollars

According to its mission statement, The Perimeter Institute is devoted toward the important goal of researching fundamental issues in theoretical physics. Perimeter’s web page discloses that a stunning pile of public and private monies has been assembled to help the Institute’s leaders advance humankind’s understanding at the research frontier. Here is an extraction concerning public monies:

Government of Canada

\$25 million grant through NSERC (2002)
\$5.6 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) (2002)
\$1.7 million grant from CFI Infrastructure Operations Fund (CFI-IOF) (2004)
\$59,900 grant from Promoscience for ISSYP program (2005)
\$50,700 grant from Promoscience for EinsteinPlus Program (2006)
\$50 million Government of Canada announcement (2007)
\$10 million commitment from Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for building expansion (2009)

Government of Ontario

\$15 million grant through MEDT (2002)
\$5.95 million grant from the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund (ORDCF), shared equally with the Institute for Quantum Computing (2002)
\$5.6 million grant from the Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT) (2002)
\$20,000 for 2003 Summer Institute (2003)
\$150,000 grant through MEDT for outreach programming (2005)
\$120,000 grant from the provincially administered Research Performance Fund (RPF) (2005)
\$50 million through Ministry of Research and Innovation (2006)
\$10 million commitment from Ministry of Research and Innovation for building expansion (2009)

Adding up the bold figures above reveals a public investment of  more than \$178.85 million. The 2011 Federal budget commitment of \$50 million and the additional 2011 Ontario budget commitment of another \$50 million to the Institute are not yet listed (nearly a year after the gifts). I wrote about these gifts last year in Part 1 of this series of posts. The total Canadian public investment in the Perimeter Institute over the past ten years exceeds \$278.85 million.

Here is an extraction concerning private donations supporting the Perimeter Institute:

Mike Lazaridis, President & Co-CEO Research In Motion: \$100 million (2000), \$50 million (2008), and \$20 million (2009) for total donation of \$170 million
Doug Fregin, Vice President (Operations) Research In Motion: \$10 million (2000) and \$20 million (2009) for total donation of  \$30 million
Jim Balsillie, Chairman & Co-CEO Research In Motion: \$10 million (2000)

These highlighted private gifts total to \$210 million producing a rather impressive (but incomplete) total sum of gifts in excess \$488.85 million. To gain some sense of the scale of this amount of money, consider the following facts:

  • The annual budget for the Fields Institute (Ontario’s treasure supporting mathematical research) is less than \$5 million.
  • The Connaught Fund for research at the University of Toronto has a total value of \$77 million. These funds were raised by the sale of Connaught Labs, the first lab to commercially produce insulin following the discovery by University of Toronto researchers F. Banting and C. Best. That fund generates \$3 to \$4 million dollars to support research activities by UofT researchers.
  • Investment in Perimeter exceeds the five year budget request by TRIUMF labs which employs 340 full-time scientists and engineers, plus a lot of specialized equipment for experiments.  (Perimeter lists 14 faculty and around 45 other faculty whose permanent positions are at other, mostly non-Canadian, institutions.)
  • NSERC’s Discovery Grants Program is the principal source for funding basic scientific and engineering research activities performed by faculty at Canada’s colleges and universities. The annual budget for the Discovery Grants (supporting about 10,000 investigators across all fields from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, all flavors of Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, …) program is about \$360 million.

Perimeter Institute Buys Culture

The Perimeter Institute has invested some of its funds to create a “lively and dynamic atmosphere for research.” The “Pushing the Perimeter” series has hosted musical events artists Brian Eno and Kronos Quartet. Last Thursday, the Perimeter Institute hosted musical and experimental performance concert by Laurie Anderson. Based on the official Twitter feed from the Perimeter Institute, it looks like the concert was a lot of fun, culminating in drinks at the Black Hole Bistro. Another upcoming series of events aimed at enlivening the research atmosphere in Waterloo will take place when the Perimeter Institute hosts Indulgence$^2$ (matched selections of red wine and chocolate) and Bask in the Cask (selections of fine ales brewed especially for the Perimeter Institute), as part of their Gastronomy series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Celebrated Discovery Continues in Toronto

Meanwhile, and despite the relative paucity of their research funding, my colleagues at the University of Toronto continue to advance the boundary of human knowledge:

With cultural attractions like the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company, the North by Northeast Music Festival (Devo at Yonge and Dundas square last year!), excellent restaurants and more, Toronto investigators are fortunate: our research money can be spent on research instead of on investments aimed at building an atmosphere conducive to research. Confronting the unfolding impact from this month’s cut of \$42 million from the Ontario Research Fund, tri-council research mission drift, and persistent troubles with peer review, the next generations of Canadians will look back and wonder what might have happened if Perimeter’s half-a-billion dollars had been invested differently.