Are Canada’s best researchers failing the country’s innovation agenda?

Or is it that the system and current programs are failing to capture their talent and their expertise? Needless to say, both questions assume that “Innovation” is not really having a good ride in Canada, at least compared to other G7 countries, and especially when one considers the cash flow that has been directed towards it from so many government “hoses”.

How can one answer such a question? Since “Piece of Mind” has neither  the resources of think-tanks, nor the expertise of statistical consulting firms, we opted for a simple –and admittedly simplistic– survey, where one could check how the Canadian universities, which are normally associated with high concentrations of research excellence, are faring in one of the many federal outlets for funding industrial R&D.

To select suitable pockets of Canadian excellence, one could look at all international ranking of universities, and note that U. Toronto, UBC, and McGill have been the only Canadian universities that are ranked consistently in the top 40 in the world. One can then safely conclude –with apologies to my outstanding colleagues elsewhere– that these three universities can be used as markers for where Canadian research talent is highly concentrated.

Now, of all federal outlets supporting industrial R&D, we chose NSERC’s Research Partnership Program, since it is one of the few where information on funding is readily available. We actually chose two of its main programs: the Industrial Research Chairs, and the Collaborative Research and Development Grants.

To our surprise, we discovered the following results:

Industrial Research Chairs Expenditures by University 2009-10

  1. Alberta $3,289,000
  2. Laval     $2,263,000
  3. Waterloo $1,981,000
  4. Calgary $1,860,000
  5. Ecole Polytechnique $1,672,000
  6. Sherbrook $1,306,000
  7. Saskatchewan $1,293,000
  8. McGill $1,098,000
  9. Guelph $925,000
  10. Montreal 923,00
  11.  Toronto $791,000
  12. UBC $762,000

CRD Expenditures by University 2009-2010

  1. Laval  $5,089,000
  2. Ecole Polytechnique $3,961,000
  3. Alberta $3,540,000
  4. UT $3,256,000
  5. McGill $3,240,000
  6. Western $3,111,000
  7. UBC $3,054,000

In other words, UT, UBC and McGill researchers are either failing Canada’s innovation effort (i.e., are not interested?), or the currently available programs are failing to capture their talent and expertise.

On the other hand, NSERC’s president, Suzanne Fortier, recently wrote in  a reply  to an open letter by Canada’s mathematical scientists: “Our highest rated Discovery Grant researchers have a higher incidence of working with industry than their colleagues.” One colleague in Chemistry  explained that this is becoming quite a plausible scenario in view of NSERC’s new evaluation procedures for Discovery Grants.

“After all, you can’t possibly be highly rated in the DG program anymore unless you are able to support a large group of students and postdocs. For that, you need to draw down large amounts of industrial funding, leverage them first with a CRD grant. This will then allow you to support a large group of HQPs, which in turn gives you an advantage in leveraging a higher Discovery Grant. A vicious loop and a devil’s bargain that some of us are striking with the bureaucracy, but whose ultimate victim may very well be the future of Canada’s basic research.

By looking at NSERC’s discovery and strategic grant programs, where peer review reigns, we see UBC, UT and McGill back where the international rankings say they belong.

Strategic grants 2009-2010

  1. UBC $6,664,000
  2. UT $5,642,000
  3. McGill $5,121,000
  4. Waterloo $4,001,000
  5. Alberta $2,488,000

Discovery Grants, 2010-2011

  1. UBC $6,746,000
  2. UT $6,019,000
  3. McGill $4,733,000
  4. Alberta $4,259,000
  5. Waterloo $3,295,00

There is one (self-serving) explanation to this discrepancy. According to Madame Fortier, the share of the mathematical sciences in the Research Partnership Program is very close to 0%.

I guess it is time to do something about that!

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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