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!
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)