First reactions to the NSERC cuts

On the heels of the cheery press releases of the presidents of NSERC and CIHR regarding the 2012 federal budget, announcements about the fate of various programs are now coming out. They all start with, As part of the Government of Canada’s efforts to return to balanced budgets, NSERC’s …  Program will not be accepting new applications.” These –less cheery– measures illustrate the true impact of the budget decisions on the Tri-council. They could explain the silence of SSHRC’s president on their implications for his council, which is somewhat appreciated. The jubilant media releases from various university administrators are not. But their constituents are starting to show signs of  life. Last week, I was forwarded the following letter, which is being signed by the leaders of various research facilities and labs. We are told that the “letter will also be sent to appropriate members of government and members of parliament.” It wouldn’t hurt if it also lands on the desks of Canada’s university presidents and VP-Rs.

Here are some excerpts from the (draft) letter, which also comes with an appendix that points to the various research projects affected by the cancellation of the Major Resources Support (MRS) program. Even more projects will be touched by the cancellation of the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) program. As I said before, it seems that the NSERC leadership is trying its best to soften the blow, hoping that the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will pick up the tab, at least for the experimental facilities. Still, letters and petitions such as this one can only help. After all, people in positions of power need to know the impact of their decision-making, even when negative. They need to want to know about the dreams, aspirations and priorities of their constituents, and not simply hear the unwarranted cheerleading of those who can’t do otherwise. (See also the illuminating comment of John Stockie below).

Here is the final version of the letter and the signatories.

April 26, 2012

Re: NSERC MRS and RTI programs

To: Dr. Suzanne Fortier and the members of NSERC Council

…  We are writing to express our deep concern over the elimination of the Major Resources Support (MRS) and Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) programs of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The cutting of these programs will have drastic and potentially irreversible effects on fundamental science and engineering research across Canada.

Quoting from NSERC itself, “the objective of the MRS program is to facilitate the effective access by Canadian academic researchers to major and unique national or international (based in Canada) experimental or thematic research resources by financially assisting these resources to remain in a state of readiness for researchers to use.”

Quoting from NSERC itself, “Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) grants foster and enhance the discovery, innovation and training capability of university researchers in the natural sciences and engineering by supporting the purchase of research equipment and installations.”

These are programs so essential to research in Canada that, prior to hearing of their termination, to think they would even be considered for elimination was inconceivable. The federal government, through cuts to NSERC, has now slashed these programs. Along with NSERC’s Discovery Grant, the RTI and the MRS programs are those which support fundamental research. The loss of the RTI and MRS programs means there are now no NSERC funding streams dedicated to the purchase of scientific equipment or to operate nationally and internationally unique resources. The loss of the MRS program in particular means that millions of dollars of equipment purchased through taxpayers’ money is as the risk of sitting idle and gathering dust due to a lack of operating funds. A list of projects funded through the MRS program in 2010-2011 is provided as an appendix to this letter.

NSERC suggests that the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) may pick up the slack in these two areas. However, the reality is that CFI is a different organization with different objectives. CFI programs do not compensate for the loss of two core programs at NSERC.

Similarly, investments by the government in industrial and/or targeted research programs at NSERC do not compensate for the loss of the two core programs which enable fundamental research. Action must be taken to reinstate the core RTI and MRS programs at NSERC. The loss of these programs is nothing short of a disaster for science in Canada.

This letter will also be sent to appropriate members of government and members of parliament.

Sincerely,

Appendix: List of MRS-funded projects (2010-2011).

Ontario

  • Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences (Ontario)
  • Laboratory for the analysis of natural and synthetic environmental toxicants (Ontario)
  • National ultrahigh-field NMR facility for solids (Ontario)
  • Hatch lab: isotope and noble gas geochemistry for earth and environmental sciences (Ontario)
  • IsoTrace AMS facility (Ontario)
  • Canadian Phycological Culture Centre: a facility supporting research on algae and cyanobacteria (Ontario)
  • Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) (Ontario)
  • Canadian resource center for zebrafish genetics (Ontario)
  • A neuroendocrinology assay laboratory at the University of Western Ontario (Ontario)
  • Canadian centre for DNA barcoding (Ontario)
  • Portable Observatories for Lithospheric Analysis and Research Investigating (POLARIS) (Ontario)
  • Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics/Institut Canadian d’astrophysique theorique (Ontario)
  • Brockhouse institute for materials research (Ontario)
  • St. John’s centrifuge modelling facility (Ontario)

Quebec

  • Canadian participation in the integrated ocean drilling program (Quebec)
  • The canadian research icebreaker Amundsen: a national resource with an international mandate (Quebec)
  • Canadian participation in the international continental drilling program (Quebec)
  • Quebec/Eastern Canada high field NMR facility (Quebec)
  • Félix d’Hérelle reference center for bacterial viruses (Quebec)
  • CRM’s major 5-year plan: Investing in people and intellectual capacities, supporting cutting edge mathematical research, exceptional new opportunities, partnerships and synergies (Quebec)
  • Canadian neutron beam laboratory (Quebec)
  • The Compute/Calcul Canada (CC) (Quebec)
  • Access to the national advanced laser light source (ALLS) facility (Quebec)
  • Station de recherche de Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik (Quebec)

Alberta

  • Kluane Lake Research Station (Alberta)
  • Nanofabrication facility support (Alberta)
  • NANUC: a national facility for high field NMR resource for applications in chemistry (Alberta)
  • Infrastructure support for the Canadian Center for Innovative Geochronology (Alberta)
  • Resource for the Innovation of Engineering Materials (Alberta)
  • Biogeoscience Institute (Alberta)
  • University of Alberta microfungus collection and herbarium (UAMH) (Alberta)
  • The Banff International Research Station

British Columbia

  • Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (British Columbia)
  • Bamfield marine sciences centre (British Columbia)
  • PNCSRF Pacific Northwest Consortium Synchrotron Radiation Facility (British Columbia)
  • Access to the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility (British Columbia)
  • Centre for molecular and materials science at TRIUMF (British Columbia)
  • Pacific centre for isotopic and geochemical research (British Columbia)

Nova Scotia

  • Canadian cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating facility (Nova Scotia)
  • Major resources support for the aquatron laboratory (Nova Scotia)
  • Atlantic Regional Facilities for Materials Characterization (Nova Scotia)

Saskatchewan

  • Canadian light source inc. (Saskatchewan)
  • Canadian Light Source Inc. – Additional Support (Saskatchewan)
  • The Canadian SuperDARN/PolarDARN facility (Saskatchewan)
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6 Responses to First reactions to the NSERC cuts

  1. John Stockie says:

    It is particularly helpful to keep the numbers in mind. The most recent “Facts and Figures” on NSERC’s web site

    http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/FactsFigures-TableauxDetailles_eng.asp

    tells us that in 2010-2011 NSERC spent the following:

    $326.2M Discovery Grants
    (of which $309.0M is devoted to individual grants)
    $31.4M Research Tools and Instruments
    $35.2M Major Resources Support

    I read this as a cut of more than 20% to support for basic research in Canada. This is certainly nothing to crow about. “Disaster” is the operative word here.

  2. Peter Bell says:

    Wow. Highlights the need to revisit the mission of the funding agencies. My condolences to all.

  3. Nilima says:

    Wow. First the gutting of Stats Can, and now this. I don’t know how much more depressing news one can handle this week.

    An exercise I learned in physics classes which is valuable is to express quantities in terms of other, known quantities. How much is $66.6M (MRS+RTI)? Well, it’s
    - one third of an F-35A fighter jet (each is 197M, Canada will buy 65);
    - around one fifteenth of what the new crime omnibus bill will cost Ontario (estimated 1billion).
    - ten times the 2011 salary of our favorite Canuck goalie, Luongo.

    When a PM declares across-the-board cost-cutting, it suggests he does not understand the differences in value generated in different federally-funded activities. A dollar invested in education brings different value than a dollar spent on jet fuel for a minister’s jaunt. A dollar invested in basic research generates long-term value and employment. My collegial advice to Harper: balance a budget, Sir. Don’t slice off your nose.

    Luongo is at least entertaining.

  4. Phil Hultin says:

    The cancellation of the RTI program is nothing more than turning off the life-support system on a patient that was already effectively dead. The RTI (formerly Equipment Grants) program has been bleeding to death for more than 15 years, and it was the CFI that killed it. I suspect that the same can be said of the MRS program, although I have no personal experience of that.

    Politicians (including those in charge at NSERC who are political albeit un-elected) perceived the RTI as duplicating CFI and thus a suitable victim when cutbacks were the order of the day. The CFI was the sexy one, with multi-million dollar grants and press-releases about “world-class” and “unique” or “paradigm-changing”. The RTI just plodded along, with less and less money to buy plain old rotary evaporators, HPLC systems, polarimeters, melting point machines and other boring, routine, mass-produced but absolutely vital tools for traditional wet-lab research. NSERC justified this by saying “well, your university should provide support for such small items”, or “why don’t you get attached to a CFI application”, or “surely you can find an industrial partner to give you one of those”.

    In Chemistry the committees tended to devote the tiny amount of RTI money available to providing only “essential” items primarily to “new applicants” – a nice idea but not very helpful in the broader sense. The constant reduction in their budgets forced them to ask: “if the applicant did not have this, would they be able to pursue their Discovery Grant research at all?” In traditional chemical research, everyone knew that there were probably work-arounds that meant you could not honestly claim your DG work would be impossible – just that it would be much slower and harder to accomplish anything.

    I am saddened by the loss of yet another part of Canada’s science support system, but the death was not unexpected as the RTI had been ailing for so long. Perhaps it’s just a happy release? That, at least, will be the spin NSERC puts on it.

  5. Thad Harroun says:

    Speaking for the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (Chalk River, ON, not QC), loss of MRS was a 30% budget cut to an otherwise NRC program. This money allowed ~150 visiting scientists a year free access to the neutron spectrometers at Chalk River, including one that incorporates the shielding drum built by Brockhouse in the 1960′s (talk about making good with what you got!)

    The reviews on the last submission were brutal, and exactly the opposite conclusions of the previous application. The new take home message – “Go to the US or Europe if you want to do these type of experiments.” Seriously? We now have to compete full-time at labs that are already oversubscribed for experiment time by 3:1? Do we have that kind of travel money in the Discovery Grants?

    Disaster says it all.

  6. Pingback: Finally, media and Parliament pick up on research funding crisis | Piece of Mind

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