NSERC: Time to press the “reset” button on its relations with government and the scientific community

There is no doubt that Suzanne Fortier bears a big responsibility for the unprecedented changes to the landscape of government support to university sponsored research and innovation. But it is hard to believe that she is solely responsible for this major metamorphose in the Council’s modus operandi and mandate. The community argued for a long time about whether her policies at NSERC were government-imposed or internally conceived and executed. Here is an attempt to relay and understand the little we know about past Government/NSERC/Scientific Community interactions, and to draw a few lessons for the future. The President of NSERC is –or supposed to be– the quarterback of these interactions and it may be useful at this juncture to have a debate on what is required.

In response to an open letter by 331 mathematical scientists, including 27 Canada Research Chairs and 35 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, Suzanne Fortier made a statement that shocked even the cynics among us –science policy junkies. She wrote back that “our highest rated Discovery Grant researchers have a higher incidence of working with industry than their colleagues.” Such a statement by the President of the sole government agency that is mandated to support basic scientific research at Canada’s universities spoke volume about the thinking and management style of Suzanne Fortier at NSERC during the last seven years.

One could only conclude that the former President was not only determined to redirect academic research funding towards short term industry needs, but that she was actually convinced that Canada’s best researchers are those who work directly with industry. That was radical and went beyond the much talked about “decision-based evidence making” syndrome. One could only assume that she was under the direct spell of the “educational zombies” referred to by David Naylor, and not merely acting under pressures from government or … business deans.

Whereas Mike Lazaridis was constantly pleading for government support of “research that tackles big questions, not just research that looks at commercial gains”, the 2012 joint pre-budget submission by NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC and CFI to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance never once addressed the need to support basic research. Their memo described how “the global job market is increasingly being driven by talented, skilled, creative and highly mobile people who are commercializing innovative ideas and developing new business processes that drive economies and improve quality of life.”

And guess what! We have no evidence that government did anything else but listen to the 3 presidents and act upon their recommendations: It directed  them to re-allocate $37-million to industrial partnership programs in their 2012 budget. Government will probably do the same to their budgets in each of the following fiscal years –or simply cut. We shall learn more tomorrow!

Between the scientific community and the political class, “mon coeur balance”

Upon reading Golby’s comment about “the EPSRC not taking sufficient advice from active researchers,” I remembered a conversation where people were comparing the management styles of the past two NSERC presidents. Fortier’s predecessor, Tom Brzustowski is known to have been in tune with the wishes and aspirations of the active research community, keeping an open mind and continuously sensing its pulse and seeking its advice. In contrast, the consensus on Fortier was that she was more focused on relations with government, hence on spending more time and energy with the political class.

This could in principle be a good thing for Canada’s science, provided of course this “political coziness” is used as a bridge between the scientific community and the political class, ultimately supporting all honest efforts to move Canadian science forward. It is hard to determine whether that was the case or not during the last seven years. While it is clear that NSERC did not get necessarily “spoiled” by the government, there is always the possibility that the cuts would have been deeper, had she kept more daylight between NSERC’s mission statement and the government’s de-facto political agenda.

Most relevant to the discussion and to the precarious position of the scientific community is what happened on March 16tth, 2009 and the days that followed. Obama had just announced the doubling of the budgets of the NIH and the NSF, and the Canadian government had just announced billions and billions of dollars of spending in a stimulus budget. Yet, that same federal budget managed to chop $147.9-million from the three granting agencies that fund research at Canadian universities. Whether intentional or not, the government seemed to be sending a loud and threatening message to Canada’s research community. The reaction was swift and 2,250 researchers, including some of the country’s most respected scientists, signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling the funding cuts “huge steps backwards for Canadian science.”

But soon after, reports started coming out from Ottawa and from certain post-secondary institutions that the NSERC leadership and some university presidents –I might add– were unhappy, even angry with the reaction of Canada’s scientific community. They argued that the public and vocal support for the Tri-council and for university research was neither warranted nor wanted! Go figure!

More recently, a bewildered scientific community read the almost identical press releases of the presidents of CIHR and NSERC regarding their 2012 budget allocations, which were obviously disappointing to rank-and-file researchers. The president of SSHRC had refrained from issuing one. NSERC’s release was entitled “Economic action plan 2012″ and praised government for its actionsYet, a week later, NSERC called for a meeting of all VP-Research in Canada’s universities to unfold a “deficit reduction action plan” for 2012 and 2013.  Not one single word was uttered to –at least– express the mildest of disappointments about a government decision to cut funding for basic research. But how then government could ever know the consequences of –and the communities’ reactions to– their policies?

What are then the lessons to be learned?

Either NSERC’s leadership truly believed in the need to alter NSERC’s mandate towards addressing the research needs of Canada’s industry and was in total agreement with the government’s budget allocations to R&D. In this case, it is fair to conclude that this leadership wasn’t in tune with neither the aspirations of the scientific community, nor the findings of the presidents of our leading universities.

If not, then one has to agree that such situations are rather delicate for a politically appointed leadership, as they require a great deal of moral courage, personal strength, objective outlook, persuasive skills, strong leadership qualities, and a solid scientific reputation to stand on.

The next leader of NSERC may need to have all these attributes, so that he/she could commend the respect of both the scientific community and of government in order to connect the –currently missing—bridge of ideas between them. Quite a tall order!

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

2 Responses to NSERC: Time to press the “reset” button on its relations with government and the scientific community

  1. Xavier says:

    With recent statement like “Too many kids getting BAs and not enough welders” apparently from a Conservative insider (whatever this means) (see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/03/18/pol-greg-weston-harper-skilled-jobs.html), it is hard to be hopeful about funding related to Canada higher education. Irrespective of who is leading NSERC.

  2. Steven Siciliano says:

    I think that the academy needs to take some responsibility for the current mess we are in. Beginning in 1990′s, around 20 years ago now, the academy sold the government the idea that investing in research would spur innovation which would spur employment and increase our quality of life. Despite massive increases in funding, after 20 years, there was no such lift. Typically, one would estimate that a societal return on investment for scientific research should be 20-30% or so (How Economics Shapes Science, Paula Stephan, pg 147) or that around 50% of the increase in productivity is due to basic research (ibid, pg 211). Since Canada’s productivity has been lagging our peer group and we are not seeing the societal return on investment, it is only reasonable to ask: What are we doing wrong?

    The academy, unfortunately, absented itself from the debate except for the cry for more money. As a result, our government decided that perhaps the solution was to shift the focus to partnerships. Now, one can argue against this approach and suggest that it was other factors that lead to the lack of return. But what could those factors be?

    Remember, those studies looking at the Canadian establishment which found out that Canadian researchers were top drawer. So, it’s not that Canada has bad scientists. Hmmm… but we don’t get many Fields, Nobels, etc, so perhaps we need more superstars. Thus, CRC and CERC are born to the frustration of the rest of the academy of a two tier system.

    Despite the strength of the Canadian academy, Canadian industry does not lead the world in innovation, is not spending enough on R&D and the innovation culture of our Canadian companies is not closely linked to the University. How to change this? Well.. the first step is to give free money to companies so that there is no risk for small research projects (Engage) and the next is to starve the academy, forcing professors to chase partnerships. As a result great ideas remain on the shelf because one has a hard time getting a partnership based grant when one’s idea are vague with often based on… ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could…’

    Do I agree with this approach? Not really but it is a reasonable approach and brings to mind, ‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’ Winston Churchill.

    If anyone else out there has a better solution than the current approach, I’d love to hear it because we can’t reasonably simply say the government is wrong but not provide a policy alternative.

    Our current system is broken but we won’t get anywhere until we own up to our part in this dance.

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