(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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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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Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”

Dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business, an iThinker pondering Canada’s innovation gap, writes in a recent op-ed piece that

“The first lesson is that commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention. Invention is the creation of some new-to-the-world technology, molecule, material, or formula. It is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist. It can be pretty earth-shattering when it is electricity or insulin. But it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.”

The laser, created by scientist inventors A. Schawlow and C. Townes at Bell Labs, was dismissed as “a solution looking for a problem.” Eventually, this seemingly irrelevant technology found applications in fiber optic communications systems, in semiconductor device fabrication and in powerpoint presentations at leading business schools worldwide. Bell Labs invested heavily in curiosity driven basic research by scientists. Scientist inventors, free to pursue their potentially irrelevant curiosities, eventually produced important technologies:

These inventions by scientists are the foundational elements Mr. Jobs “cobbled together to make the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPod”. Without them, Apple’s innovative product line would simply not exist.

Basic scientific research is the soil in which innovation grows.



Dean Roger Martin’s remarks in the Globe and Mail yesterday threaten Canada’s intellectual infrastructure and therefore merit the attention of all Canadians, especially policymakers planning the upcoming federal budget and researchers in Canada’s universities. Amazingly, he asserts:

“What makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology.  It is businesses producing high paying jobs by having unique products and processes that a customer needs.”

Who does he think creates those products and processes?  Business majors?  His observation will come as a shock to the Chinese, who are working hard to build a competitive modern economy by investing heavily their research resources in the basic sciences and engineering in their universities, not in business schools.  They know these investments will create the industries of the future, just as they have for the west in the past.  What is amazing about Martin’s claim is that virtually all of the “high paying jobs” in industries with “unique products and processes” – those leading edge industries like communications technology, pharmaceuticals, bio-technology, etc. that Martin so casually dismisses, have products that are the result of investment in university-based research in science and technology.  In the United States, Silicon Valley, which houses many of the companies he says are now led by CEOs with business degrees, was created by scientists and engineers from Stanford and the University of California.  Indeed, it would be difficult to identify a single industry today that was not based on a scientific or technological innovation of the past.  Business does not create business; creative innovation creates business.

New Rotman Building
After claiming that Canadian business schools are broke ($200M Campaign, New building), Martin cites statistics comparing the percentage of students in a discipline versus the percentage of tri-council research funding given to that discipline. Martin argues that the percentage of students in a discipline should equal (or at least influence) the percentage of tri-council funding given to that discipline. This is a terrible idea. Martin appeals here to the value of fairness (“In business….it’s a 10 to 1 cut”). If taken seriously, Martin’s reallocation plan restricts policymakers from defining the government’s research investment portfolio; it prevents them from making targeted investment decisions. The plan potentially forces money to be poured into disciplines which happen to be popular with undergraduates at the time (whether frivolous or not). Science policy should not be determined by a popularity contest among undergraduate major choices. I prefer the old ways to think: scientifically, strategically.

Roger Martin’s viewpoint will hurt Canada in the short and long term if taken seriously now. Basic scientific research has produced (among other things):

  • electricity (why you aren’t in the dark, can take an elevator in a high rise, and have clean laundry)
  • vaccines (partly why you are not already dead)
  • transistors (performing the basic functions on which computers are built, enabling the internet)
  • encryption (why you can safely make financial transactions online and make other secure communications)
  • combustion engines (how your car generates power for motion)
  • financial derivatives (so that insurance companies and banks can prepare for risks)
  • search engines (how we manage information overload on the internet)

What percentage of the workforce relies on these developments? In contrast, what basic elements of the modern economy can be attributed to MBAs? (Perhaps MBAs can claim to have invented mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps leading to to the financial meltdown of 2008- 2009?)

Martin highlights a list of technology companies (Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco and Intel) and reports that many of their CEOs have MBAs. Look up the history of these companies and you will find:

MBA CEOs may find efficient ways to bring widgets to the market and make a profit in the process. But the widgets are invented by scientists and engineers through basic research targeting science and engineering, not business education or business research.  Business majors and MBAs are important in the operations of businesses that create new products, so business education is important.  But to suggest that it is primarily responsible for new products and innovations creating business is just plain wrong. Misconceptions about the impact and role of basic research funding by business leaders may be one of the largest obstructions currently contributing to Canada’s innovation gap.

The challenges we face in Canada, and as human beings on earth, require new ideas. The long research lines of science (pioneered by Galileo, Newton, Gauss, Euler, Darwin, Riemann, Einstein, Curie, Schrödinger,…,Banting, Polanyi,…) have consistently produced innovation and prosperity, and therefore merit vigorous and consistent government funding.