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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2011 Discovery Grants Competition Aftermath

Anomalies in the results of the 2011 NSERC Discovery Grants competition provoked a flurry of activity nearly one year ago. My blog post from April last year reported on surprising results for several of my colleagues at Toronto. An email flurry among Canadian mathematicians culminated in a late April public statement which was eventually signed by 336 Canadian researchers, including 35 Fellows of the Royal Society and 27 Canada Research Chairs. In late May, a majority of the Evaluation Group for Section 1508 released a public letter to NSERC President Suzanne Fortier reporting on a “lack of fairness”, a “lack of transparency” and that their “confidence in the program, as currently administered, is regrettably shaken”.  President Fortier gave a presentation to the Canadian Mathematical Community at the Summer CMS Meeting. President Fortier’s slides have not been released but there are notes and rebuttals by Walter Craig. Claims of grade inflation have also been analyzed.

Toronto Math Appeals of 2011 Results

Last May, seven Toronto mathematicians submitted appeals of their 2011 results. As far as I can determine, NSERC does not provide statistics on the number of appeals but seven math appeals was unprecedented from Toronto. Appeals are normally resolved within two to three months. As of late September, the decisions on the appeals were not yet announced.  Toronto Math made email and telephone inquiries asking that decisions be made soon since successful appellants would need time to prepare new proposals in advance of the  November 1 submission deadline.

Email correspondence revealed that Toronto’s appeals were handled differently than those from other universities. In particular, NSERC’s Isabelle Blain informed me that Toronto’s appeals were processed through a “pilot” program involving two or more appeals advisers.  Three of the appeals decisions were announced in late September and the remaining four appeals were announced on October 19, 2011:  2 of 7 appeals were granted. The good news for the successful applicants was bittersweet since it set in motion a rushed effort to prepare proposals for the 2012 competition. Unfortunately, the reports from the appeals advisers for one of the successful appellants could not be consulted while preparing the 2012 proposals since they were not provided by NSERC until after the submission deadline.  Toronto appeals were rejected in circumstances when one or more of the appeals advisers advocated for granting the appeal. Some Toronto appellants perceive the “pilot” appeals process to have been unfair. Conversations along these lines continue….

Repercussions: Uncertainty, Frugality and HQP

In the wake of the 2011 anomalies, many Toronto mathematicians who face renewal of their NSERC Grant in 2012, 2013 and even in 2014 are hesitant to commit funds toward hiring postdocs or toward training graduate students. Uncertainty has provoked frugality. Running a successful, even world leading, research program is no longer sufficient to justify an NSERC Discovery Grant. The new evaluation metrics, introduced by NSERC in 2009, require evidence that the principal investigator is successful at training highly qualified personnel (HQP). Taking frugal actions now will limit HQP production over the next few years resulting in a lower or zero grant next time: a vicious cycle which obstructs research advancement and training of young investigators. With the goals of breaking this cycle and maintaining the research vibrancy postdocs bring, the Department of Mathematics at Toronto has raised its funding support level (by 33%) for postdoctoral hires.

Looking Forward: Continued Instability

The 2012 Discovery Grants Competition results will be announced in the next week or two. Hearsay and anecdotal reports about the evaluation process have been reassuring. The Evaluation Group received recommendations jointly authored by the Long Range Plan Committee Chair Nancy Reid and the Math-NSERC Liaison Committee Chair Walter Craig. Similar recommendations were made in a December letter by a group of physicists to President Fortier. The Long Range Plan should help heal the rifts between the mathematics and statistics communities of Canada when it is released later this year. There are reasons to be optimistic in the short term.

In the intermediate term, there is likely to be continued instability with the peer review system at NSERC. Despite the 2011 anomalies for math and the ensuing kerfuffle, receiving similar complaints and suggestions for improvements by physicists, and faced with public criticisms by astronomers, chemists and engineers, NSERC staff insists that the new system is working well. The new evaluation system, the “conference model” with its “bins” and HQP touchstone, was introduced in 2009 and will be the subject of a five year review in 2014. Whether led by current or future NSERC staff, or by an energized scientific community, I anticipate substantial changes, and therefore instabilities, to the peer review process at NSERC in 2014 or 2015.

Shrinking Funds for Basic Research

Beyond the fairness of the evaluation process, there is the issue of shrinking federal investment in basic research. According to NSERC’s 2010-2011 tables, expenditures on Discovery have been flat to decreasing when viewed in constant 2000 dollars over the past decade (data taken from Table 1). In contrast, the total NSERC budget has grown with the expansion occurring in programs aimed at commercialization rather than basic research.


Meanwhile, strategic recruitment leveraged by the CRC and CERC programs has increased the number of faculty submitting Discovery Grant applications (data taken from Table 27). Over the same time period, the number of successful applications has decreased (data taken from Table 27).


Table 50 shows that mathematicians do not really benefit from programs outside of the Discovery Grants. Mathematics, the “poetry of logical ideas”, is profoundly relevant to various industries. Canada’s research mathematicians need to find ways to share their expertise and leverage their Discovery Grant funds the way other disciplines do.



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.




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.

The Globe and Mail recently posted a story entitled “Building partnerships between businesses and universities” which highlights NSERC’s Engage Grants Program. Following the article, there appears an attribution I don’t usually see in The Globe:

Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.

I found this a bit strange so I followed the link and found the mission statement of BDC.ca:

Our mission
Help create and develop Canadian businesses through financing, venture capital and consulting services, with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Our vision
Accelerate entrepreneurs’ success.

In fact, we’re solely dedicated to Canadian entrepreneurs. We have a nationwide team helping more than 29,000 businesses reach their full potential.

The Engage program is now three years old. NSERC President Suzanne Fortier has characterized the program as providing funds for academic-industrial “first dates”. The Globe article contains an anecdote on one (reportedly among 240 to date [Correction: there are now over 1000 Engage grants.]) academic researcher who is having fun “making lane changes”. NSERC Vice President for Partnership Programs Janet Walden’s assertion that the program is “win-win” for business and academic sectors is not justified with any statistics or summary facts about the program as a whole. Not everyone sees it this way but the businesses helped by BDC probably like the Engage program a lot. Who wins?

NSERC President Suzanne Fortier

Consider the details of the Engage 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 on their investment.
  • NSERC has not revealed conversion rates of Engage grants into Collaborative Research and Development program grants. Why?

Meanwhile, 240 1000 Engage grants, each costing $25K, bleed 6 25 Million dollars away from other NSERC programs like the Discovery Grants which support basic research by Canada Research Chairs and other university researchers. NSERC’s foray into business development should be contrasted with the Council’s original mission:

“…encourage excellence in research; provide a base of advanced knowledge in the universities; assist in the selective concentration of research activities; aim for a regional balance in scientific capability; maintain a basic capacity for research training; encourage curiosity-oriented research; and encourage research with a potential contribution to national objectives. … these objectives are intended … to ensure long-term coherence in the federal system of university research granting.” (Honourable Hugh Faulkner, then Minister of State for Science and Technology, during the opening comments of the second reading of Bill C-26.)

Panel Chair Tom Jenkins, Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear, Arvind Gupta, Monique F. Leroux and Nobina Robinson (Not shown are panel members David Naylor and Bev Dahlby)

With Engage and other programs aimed at building academic-industrial partnerships, the current leadership has drifted away from NSERC’s core mission. This “mission drift” at NSERC was highlighted (see page 128 in the PDF version or follow this link) in the Review of Federal Support to Research and Development produced by the federal R&D panel chaired by Tom Jenkins (who was recently appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada):


The granting councils have played a pivotal role in developing both talent and ideas for Canada’s innovation agenda. Their core raison d’être has been and remains investigator-initiated research of both a basic and applied nature, and each needs to continue to be generously supported. However, there has been mission drift for the granting councils, as they have responded to pressure from government to be more business facing.

By excogitating the recommendations of the expert panel report, Minister Goodyear and Prime Minister Harper are poised to lead Canada’s research and development enterprise back to the launch pad: basic research; dream big.


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