(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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