The VPs-Research of all universities across Canada have been invited to a Tri-Council meeting “around Research and Innovation” in Ottawa. Officials are being very tight-lipped about the content of the meeting, which is scheduled for April 13th. What is it about? What should be done now that Government has asked the Tri-council to move $37-million to industry-academic research partnership initiatives in their 2012-13 budgets? What should the cuts be, when another $37-million is gone from their next year’s budgets? Is it about the imminent consolidation of business partnership programs that the Jenkins report recommended and that Gary Goodyear keeps alluding to? The answer may be all of the above, because the 2012 federal budget has/should indeed be causing major headaches to university officials all over Canada as much as to the Presidents of the three research councils.
What are the issues? Well, contrary to what the AUCC president, Paul Davidson, hastily announced last week, the 2012 federal budget will not preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding. The research councils were actually asked a few months ago by government to put forward plans for a potential 5-10% cut to their budgets. On the surface, it looks like the Tri-council has managed to dodge the bullet, since instead of proceeding with these cuts, the government asked them to re-direct some of their funds to industry-academic research partnership programs. So where is the problem?
Well, unless NSERC had the foresight to recommend that all of its potential cuts should come from its Research Partnership Program (RPP) –a highly unlikely occurence in view of this joint submission to Flaherty– then Suzanne Fortier will have to immediately re-allocate $15-million from NSERC’s discovery and scholarship programs in favor of its RPP programs. The situation is even worse for SSHRC and CIHR since their industry-academic partnership programs are not as developed as NSERC’s in comparison to their core programs. I will let you decide whether this is a headache worth sharing with Canada’s VP-Rs, who will surely be on the receiving end of their researchers wrath once they hear about their continually shrinking discovery grants.
But there is another important issue that I hope the VP-Rs will not shy away from putting on the discussion table in Ottawa. The Jenkins report has recommended the creation of an “Industrial Research and Innovation Council” (IRIC) to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs. It was not announced in the budget, but is surely in the works. What is noticeable however, is that Gary Goodyear seems to be aiming to park IRIC within the National Research Council (NRC), since it is supposed to encompass the “Industrial Research Assistance Program” (IRAP), the latter being a darling of government –having received $110 million per year “to double its support to companies”. Word on the street is that the $65M for the NRC from the 2012 budget “to help it refocus on business-led, industry-relevant research”, is essentially a downpayment for Goodyear’s vision of IRIC, as “a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs (a “concierge”),” within the NRC.
Needless to say, the existence of IRIC could make the Tri-council involvement in partnership programs redundant, including the Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE), and sooner or later, there will be pressure to consolidate and move the RPP and NCE programs (and hence, their budgets) to the NRC, including the $37-million top-up (and probably double that, next year) which the Tri-council is supposed to cough up for partnership programs, as well as the additional $12-million per year earmarked for the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence program.
This scenario should sound alarm bells for the VP-Rs of Canada’s universities. They should be pondering what will happen to the industry-academic research partnership initiatives, once they move to an outlet that has hardly had any interaction with the universities since the founding of the Tri-council, several decades ago. What will be the role, influence and scale of industry-academic research within an organization whose mandate is to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs, without either the capacity of reaching out to the academic world, or a sufficient understanding of the role of higher education in the innovation system?