“Decision-based evidence making” and the future of Canada’s scientific research

It’s official! “Our highest rated Discovery Grant researchers have a higher incidence of working with industry than their colleagues”. Thus spoke NSERC’s president Suzanne Fortier in her reply  to the open letter by 331 mathematical scientists, including 27 Canada Research Chairs and 35 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada.
All what I can think of –for now– is this recent tweet by Dan Gardner pointing to a statement by a retired federal government scientist: Politicians don’t like “evidence-based decision making”; they prefer “decision-based evidence making.”

Whether fact or fiction, substantiated or imagined, evidence-based or decision-based, I say that this statement by the President of the sole government agency that is mandated to support basic scientific research is as radical as a public statement can be by an official figure on this side of the Canada-US border.

Madame Fortier doesn’t say that the highest rated DG researchers are those who work on applied, concrete or applicable scientific problems. She doesn’t say that the deepest scientific discoveries often eventually lead to industrial applications. She doesn’t fudge her statement by using the more vague “passe-partout” term of “innovation”. She simply says that her/NSERC analysis shows that our best researchers are those who work directly with industry. That’s radical!

It is also a radical departure from the epiphany she had herself experienced upon encountering the deep, visionary, and hardly industrially directed mathematics of Nobelist Herbert  Hauptman.

WMD-type evidence or not, I say that Canada’s universities ought to be well aware of the consequences of decision-making under such premises. Since I am keen on having my Canada day’s break, I will not be doing my own analysis on the NSERC data for now. I hope however, that you readers will provide us with your own evidence and comments.

Let me just say that I happened to be on the Killam Prize committee for the past three years. This prize is supposed to be the highest honour that Canada gives to its researchers. Based on that experience, I am acutely aware of the fact that exactly the opposite of what Madame Fortier has stated is true. And while we had an embarrassment of riches in certain categories, it was definitely not the case among those that rank high in her analysis.

Here is the list of the latest Killam prize recipients in the natural sciences. I would venture that many of them –rightly or wrongly– will be “offended” if their research was described as industrially motivated and/or directed.

• 2011, Gilles Brassard (Quantum computing)
• 2010, Arthur McDonald (Particle astrophysics)
• 2009, John P. Smol (Paleolimnology)
• 2008, Frank C. Hawthorne (Crystallography and Mineralogy)
• 2007, J. Richard Bond (Theoretical Astrophysics)
• 2006, Paul Corkum (Theoretical physics and laser science)
• 2005, Brian K. Hall (evolutionary biology)
• 2004, James G. Arthur (Fundamental mathematics)
• 2003, David Schindler (Ecology)
• 2002, Robert V. Moody (Fundamental mathematics)
• 2001, Ronald Melzack (Behavioral neuro-science)
• 2001, Paul Brumer (Theoretical chemical physics.)
• 2000, Fergus I. Craik (Cognitive Psychology)
• 1999, Walter Hardy (experimental studies of superconductors)
• 1998, Juan C. (Tito) Scaiano (Photochemistry)
• 1997, Stephen A. Cook (Theoretical computer science)
• 1996, William G. Unruh (Astrophysics)

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16 Responses to “Decision-based evidence making” and the future of Canada’s scientific research

  1. JoVE says:

    That paragraph on the particular choice of language would be a credit to any discourse analyst in the humanities and social sciences. The language used is indeed telling.

  2. Nilima says:

    Depressing indeed.
    Maybe Brian Cox needs to be invited to visit, a la Charles and Kate: http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_cox_why_we_need_the_explorers.html
    He makes an eloquent case for curiosity-driven science, including an economic one: every dollar spent on the Apollo program generated fourteen dollars worth of activity.

    And, as say reminds us:
    “Nothing is so dangerous to the progress of the human mind than to assume that our views of science are ultimate, that there are no mysteries in nature, that our triumphs are complete and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”
    — Humphrey Davy

  3. SpongeBob says:

    I think that in difficult times, such as those imposed on Canada by “decision-based evidence-making” people, the true nature of people is revealed. You have those who stick to their principles, like Munir Sheikh from Statistics Canada or Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission past president Linda Keen. You have the hired guns, like the President of NRC, John McDougall. And you have those who change allegiance.

  4. A. Cynic says:

    NSERC’s determination to fund principally application driven research including Discovery Grants is reminiscent of a central economy. As giants like Nortel fall, NSERC’s determination to fund applicable research in a directed university economy increases, like a forgotten eastern block state. A moral question is posed however: would an individual taxpayer choose to greatly invest in government R&D for at best (nearly) exclusive private company profit, especially to the detriment of scholarly capabilities of the university?

    NSERC is taking this one step further than the Soviets however, by undermining funding towards mathematics, including merging mathematics and statistics, two distinct disciplines. Canada’s lack of major successes on the world stage and continuing dependance on foreign universities for personnel is nothing more than a result of myopic central planning.

  5. Dooble says:

    “NSERC’s determination to fund principally application driven research including Discovery Grants is reminiscent of a central economy.” This is a pretty funny comment; hyperbole much?

    Honestly, most of you seem quite content to mix the terms ‘industry-partnered’ with ‘industry-driven’ or ‘industry-motivated.’ The truth of the matter is that there is quite a bit of industry-partnered basic research, and sometimes it is of a higher quality than that produced just by academics on their own.

    Besides, even if this was *more* industry-driven research we were talking about it would still be beneficial. Academic commericalization in Canada is lower than most other countries in the OCED (which, by the way, is not a good thing).

  6. A. Cynic says:

    Unfortunately, science and engineering are a directed economy within the university, which is directed by a central funding agency, NSERC. NSERC uses taxpayer money to decide the worthiness of research, and thus create an economy within the university (i.e. which field of research is `worthy’, which proposals are `fundable’ and so forth) and ultimately what researchers are hireable.

    No, very few Nobel Laureates are produced, nor are any Fields Medallists. Canada looks abroad for personnel and fares poorly in innovation, but, this is the result of the university directed economy.

    What does the university directed economy produce? Well it produces a lot of research that is published in applied journals, in the pretext that government (taxpayer) sponsored R&D will potentially have (exclusive) private company profit.

    No company in their right mind would have such a business model, but NSERC does. But, NSERC is funded by taxpayers, not by private capital, which allows the cycle to continue.

    In the meantime, the scholarly capacity of the university goes down, intensifying pressure to hire from foreign institutions which include a strong focus on basic research.

    Sadly, mathematics which underlies so much technology and innovation, basic knowledge of which is required for the engineering and physical sciences, gets pushed to the bottom of the heap, fighting for meagre discovery grants, and being told the research does not have enough `incidence’ with industry. Perhaps mathematicians should begin working in the auto industry, clearly a more likely source of innovation (as in the picture above).

  7. Suzanne Fortier’s comment describes a true chicken and egg situation. I don’t doubt that the “highest rated Discovery Grant researchers have a higher incidence of working with industry than their colleagues”. After all, you can’t possibly be highly rated unless you can draw down enormous amounts of outside funding to leverage your DG and support a large group of students and postdocs. And, you can’t attract the interest of any industrial partner unless you have a lot of funding supporting numerous students and postdocs.

    Partnering with industry says NOTHING about the quality of one’s research or the excellence of one’s HQP. Many good projects proceed with industrial partnership, and I am sure that a lot of junk science gets done that way too. Lots of good science happens without industrial partnership, and we all know that a lot of junk science happens as well.

    Suzanne Fortier’s words are simply the clearest and most explicit statement of NSERC’s new political vision for Canadian Science: only a select few will be permitted to carry out research, and this elite will be based in wealthy provinces, at generously-funded institutions located close to large concentrations of industry. The rest of us are expected just to teach from the textbook and stop trying to get above our stations.

  8. A. Cynic says:

    The lucky few are left to teach from textbooks. Many won’t make it onto the faculty and if they do will struggle or fail because they cannot get funded (not conforming to NSERC’s model). Canadians themselves have a very slim chance of succeeding due to this approach, as mentioned above. This is the research model that NSERC has built.

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  10. Casteels says:

    I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed the most recent NSERC PGS and PDF numbers: Across all disciplines from 2010 to 2011, Master’s awards are down 36%, Doctoral awards down 28% and, I think most alarmingly, PDF’s down 54%. In absolute numbers, math-related PDF’s are down from around 28 to only 12. It seems these numbers should be just as concerning as the DG issue!

  11. As a member of one of the PGS/PDF evaluation committees, I was shocked by the tiny number of PGS and PDF awards given in my discipline. The committee was charged with ranking all the applications, and this task was carried out very rationally and thoughtfully. But we knew that the actual cutoff between funded/not funded would be determined by NSERC staff. It was dismaying to discover that many of the applicants that we had tacitly assumed had a very good chance of being funded were in fact well below the eventual cut-off.

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  13. In contrast to the “decision-based evidence-making” going on in Canada, we should observe what the US National Science Foundation is now doing. NSF has initiated program of funded investigations on the impact of (US) Federal research dollars invested in academic labs, with an initial focus on chemistry (http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=501084). They note that the impact of basic research may take decades to become apparent (listen up, NSERC) so the superficial kind of indicators that are easy to measure are not likely to be useful.

    An article in the American Chemical Society’s “Chemical and Engineering News” magazine (June 27, 2011) quotes US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on the subject of R&D investment:
    “In the abstract, economists have identified some persuasive justifications for government policies to promote R&D activities, ESPECIALLY THOSE RELATED TO BASIC RESEARCH [emphasis mine]. In practice, we know less than we would like about which policies work best.”

    Isn’t this a refreshing kind of statement? “We don’t know enough yet to be dogmatic about what policies will yield the best outcomes”. And, refreshing too that NSF is putting money into getting the answers BEFORE recommending policy.

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