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?