(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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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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Polanyi Stamp

I was happy today to learn that Canada Post issued a stamp honoring my Toronto colleague and Nobel Laureate John Polanyi. The stamp is issued as part of the celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. This bit of good news tempered the alarming developments across the ocean where actions by the EPSRC appear to be destroying the scientific fabric of the UK. Here in Canada, despite an anomalous 2011 Discovery Grants competition for math/stats and recent news that some of my colleagues’ appeals were rejected, I hope to soon hear good news from the Expert R&D Panel which will hopefully reset Canada’s priorities and shore up support for basic research. The original vision of NSERC (supporting research at universities) is quite different from today’s gallimaufry of industrial Research Partnership Programs which are taking away money from Discovery Grants and basic research in general.

The report of the six member R&D panel is forecasted to arrive sometime in October. UBC’s Nassif Ghoussoub reports that “all eyes are on” David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto. Ghoussoub’s post encouraged me to spend some time reviewing some of President Naylor’s opinion pieces looking for insights into his perspectives on research policy. Here are some extractions I found encouraging:

Summer 2011: Meeting Global Challenges

“We cannot afford to fall behind. Higher education and advanced research in today’s world has a massive impact that extends into every other field of human endeavor. And Canada must have universities that can do two related things: conduct the advanced research that will help surmount the grand challenges that humanity now faces, and offer the best and brightest students an education that will help them build a more successful nation and a better world. No university in Canada is better positioned to meet those objectives.”

Spring 2008: The Topography of Innovation

“…governments should fund basic research more generously. From lasers to Teflon, countless economically important advances have piggybacked on basic research. And in regions where Nobel Prize winners congregate in great universities, knowledge-based industries flourish in a wonderfully synergistic relationship.”

“Canadians are efficient at turning dollars into research but inefficient at turning research into dollars. Commercialization is not the enemy of fundamental research; nor is the converse true. However, it is wrong headed to insist that granting councils and research agencies constantly look downstream to the marketplace when their sights are justifiably set upstream on knowledge generation. Instead, we need dedicated commercialization agencies and infrastructure.”

Summer 2009: Universities and the Innovation Economy

“Unfortunately, one still hears grumbling about overspending on “irrelevant” basic research. The last hundred years have shown us time and again that basic research, driven by curiosity and arbitrated by peer review, is absolutely essential to human progress – and its practical impacts are totally unpredictable.”

“We should also be clear about what universities don’t do. Commercialization happens in companies, not in universities. To be sure, universities can collaborate more often and more effectively with industrial partners. We can try to ensure a strong outflow of well-protected intellectual property with interesting potential. And we should promote a culture of civic engagement and entrepreneurship among our students and trainees. The University of Toronto is taking positive action on all those fronts. But the onus in commercialization rests squarely on the private sector.”

I also found a lot of discussion explaining that, on all metrics, Toronto is an outstanding University. President Naylor also presented detailed comparisons showing how American, British (this might have changed recently), and European grants cover the “indirect costs of research” at much higher levels than Canadian grants. Indirect costs are very important but appear to be harder to sell to policy makers than, say, research institutes in vulnerable ridings.

In addition to developing the method of infrared chemiluminescence, Professor Polanyi has made many insightful statements concerning science policy. These three are especially relevant right now:

(Concerning the allocation of research funds) “It is folly to use as one’s guide in the selection of fundamental science the criterion of utility. Not because (scientists)… despise utility. But because. .. useful outcomes are best identified after the making of discoveries, rather than before.”

— Speech to the Canadian Society for the Weizmann Institute of Science, Toronto (2 Jun 1996)

“Faced with the admitted difficulty of managing the creative process, we are doubling our efforts to do so. Is this because science has failed to deliver, having given us nothing more than nuclear power, penicillin, space travel, genetic engineering, transistors, and superconductors? Or is it because governments everywhere regard as a reproach activities they cannot advantageously control? They felt that way about the marketplace for goods, but trillions of wasted dollars later, they have come to recognize the efficiency of this self-regulating system. Not so, however, with the marketplace for ideas.”

— Quoted in Martin Moskovits (ed.), Science and Society, the John C. Polanyi Nobel Lareates Lectures (1995)

“At one time, it would have been thought mistaken to suggest that scientists meddle in politics. Today, it would be shameful to deny that they have this responsibility.”

Hope lies in the scientific method, The Globe and Mail 2009-05-29


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