Is NSERC’s matchmaking effort leading to too many free one-night stands?

In order to fulfill its new self-imposed mandate as a pro-active matchmaker between academic researchers and industrial outlets, NSERC introduced three years ago a program that essentially picks up the entire tab for a “first date”, albeit blind or not, between the two “pretenders”. The ultimate goal is to get the industrial partner interested enough to come back for “encores” with his/her “academic mate” in a new relationship, where this time around the taxpayer (NSERC) “only” pays for two-thirds of the bills. But what if the scheme is not working as planned and what if NSERC is ending up paying for mere one-night stands?

Should NSERC then create another pocket that promotes a subsidized “second date” by paying –say 90% of the bill?  Confused? Let me explain.

The heart and soul of NSERC ‘s Research Partnership Program (RPP) is the Collaborative Research and Development program (CRD). CRD matches industrial cash contributions on a 2-1 basis ($1 from company cash, $1 from company in-kind, $2 from NSERC). There is no upper bound on the size of the award, and there is no time-line stipulated for the project. NSERC does “peer-review” for large projects, but it is unclear if there is a bona fide peer-review for small projects.

The problem is that academics have not been successful at getting industrial partners to buy into the CRD formula, and NSERC doesn’t have “business developers” to go out and hunt for opportunities to match-up industries with researchers. But, believe it or not, NSERC has cash!

So, 3 years ago they initiated the “Engage program”. We have written before about this relatively new kid on the block of the granting system. But here it is again in a nutshell.

• $0 from company; $25K from NSERC

• Only for a scientist-company relationship that did not exist before

• 6 month project, no peer review

• Company owns all Intellectual Property (IP) if any.

NSERC’s high hopes were to use the “Engage program” to fully pay for a first date with industry, hoping to eventually turn many of these “Engage relationships” into CRD projects. This is one type of outcomes that we can measure. So where are we now?

How many of these Engage projects have turned into CRDs since the inception of the program? What is the conversion rate from Engage to CRD, both in raw numbers and in total cash business generated? Has CRD grown because of Engage? Has it shrunk? And why isn’t NSERC publishing this number anyway, given that was the stated purpose of Engage?

“Piece of Mind” sources say that the reason behind this blackout is that there is not much to show for it, i.e., the success rate in the conversion to CRDs is way below expectations. So what to expect now?

Will NSERC try to “remedy” the situation by introducing yet another program, where the rate for industrial matching is somewhere between Engage (i.e. 0%) and CRD (i.e., 33%). And, if there is a peer-review process it will be notional. Will this new band-aid actually help transition companies to CRD?  Here are other expected “features” of this new program:

• It will siphon money away from other NSERC envelopes,

• It will buy NSERC’s leadership a few more years waiting for yet another new program to prove its worth,

• And it will definitely add to the proliferation of sub-programs, which is exactly what the Federal R&D Panel was concerned about and recommended against.

Last but not least, shouldn’t one wonder why the mere exercise of routing projects to CRD is becoming the “gold standard” of research and development? Since when was such a goal the raison d’être of Canada’s premier federal science research agency?

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5 Responses to Is NSERC’s matchmaking effort leading to too many free one-night stands?

  1. Rbradsen says:

    One needs to be industry-centric to understand this: A company has a challenge, a professor has a potential solution. They somehow get matched up. The Professor provides a quote for the R&D work and informs the company that, together, they can apply for a research grant to subsidize the cost. This is the incentive the company needs to work with an “unknown contractor” who may, or may not, come up with useful intellectual property. The company wants results. If a single R&D project gets the results, then there is no reason to do more R&D (at least on that topic). If the R&D does not get positive results, then end of story. Only if the R&D shows promising results and more work is needed (and the Industry-Academic relationship is strong) is there a possibility of a follow-on grant.
    NSERC has the wrong objective. The objective is delivering industry solutions leveraging state-of-the-art resources in academia, not promoting perpetual research.

  2. Peter Bell says:

    Big questions, thanks for writing about them!

  3. I looked at the Engage program as a possible way to keep my research afloat after getting cut off by the Discovery Grants. The problem for people like me is the 6-month timeline and firm deliverables. How can I promise to deliver results in 6 months when my human resources have been cut down to 1 grad student by the DG decision?

    Those who have money can get money. The rich get richer…

  4. An update regarding the conversion rate of NSERC Engage grants into Collaborative Research and Development grants.

    “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.”

    I am grateful to MP Kennedy Stewart for obtaining this statistic through a Library of Parliament request.

  5. Steven Siciliano says:

    I use both Engage, CRD and I2I programs. The Engage program works very well as it allows me to work with industrial partners to explore new ideas as well as to help infuse a corporate culture with the benefits of R&D. It fits well into the partnership spectrum, that is, it can be difficult for a company to go into a CRD cold but the Engage system provides a low risk alternative.

    The prime benefit of the Engage program is not academics but rather corporate Canada. It provides a venue for companies to engage in R&D without a business case risk. Instead, the company is responsible for (a) providing the salaries of the corporate research team and (b) providing the industrial resources to make a project happen, such as samples, data, etc. In my experience, Engage’s work well by Engaging companies and introducing them to projects. The long term benefit may be to introduce the benefits of R&D to Canadian corporate culture.

    The second, lesser, benefit of the Engage program is to the academy in general. Disciplines that have less obvious industrial applications can be coxed into a collaborative project by basically giving the academic $25,000 with few strings and no large grant write ups. This can stimulate ideas in the academic because sometimes applied problems lead to new disciplines (an example that comes to mind is Fisher’s development of new statistical approaches to deal with cancer clinical trials). I have no evidence this is occurring other than anecdotal.

    Repeatedly, corporate Canada has not heavily invested in R&D. Part of this may be the type of companies that are common in Canada. For example, Intel spends a large sum of money every year on R&D whereas TransCanada Pipelines spends $0. But a larger part of this is corporate culture which is not accustomed to R&D. The CRD and I2I programs have not managed to change this. So NSERC has to try something new.

    I am confused by this post and the replies. Do others feel that the Engage siphoning money away from the Discovery system? This would assume that it is a zero sum game when I assume that NSERC is currently in a negative sum game. In other words, the only way to protect the NSERC envelope is to transfer money to partnership programs, or it would be gone. If NSERC did not do this transfer, NSERC would likely be suffering budget cuts like very other Federal unit and the Discovery envelope would go down.

    So in my opinion, the Engage program will likely work at getting companies to participate in R&D. It should help encourage academics to work with industry. Even if you disagree with this, all of NSERC’s other options look bad.

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