Throughout the scientific enterprise there is a pressing need to create a platform for communities of researchers to jointly articulate a vision for their research efforts, to devise a strategy for achieving this vision, and to be accountable for this vision by the public, by government, and by funding agencies. Without this platform, research policy is set by administrative demands: in some cases directly, by responding to government priorities with new or targeted funding, and in many instances indirectly, by changes in administrative details.
CIHR’s model of decentralized Institutes provides such a platform for health researchers. In science and engineering, NSERC’s re-allocations exercise served as such a platform until its termination in 2003. Although the re-allocations exercise had ultimately failed in having an impact on major changes in funding, it was very successful at encouraging visionary thinking from scientific disciplines, and in engaging the scientific community in innovative proposals for research. One example is the collaboration between the mathematics and statistics communities to create a jointly funded national program for statistical innovation in scientific applications. Another benefit of the re-allocations exercise was the challenge it gave to researchers to develop new research collaborations, within and across disciplines. Inter-disciplinary research is essential for many of today’s most pressing scientific problems, but inter-disciplinary research needs to rest on strong disciplinary foundations.
Canada has a strong and vibrant network of communities, often anchored by one or more national societies, and researchers in these communities are eager to have input into science policy and scientific directions. The National Science Foundation in the US provides another example of such a platform; scientists are seconded from universities precisely to provide scientific directions for their disciplines, and to engage in discussions across disciplines on important scientific challenges.
An important consequence of this community-based input will be increased flexibility in addressing different disciplinary agendas in different ways. For example, the mathematics community in Canada has long had a policy of building research capacity in small universities by ensuring that excellent researchers in these areas were funded, often with small grants that reflected their need for funds, the importance of research for the pipeline of graduate students, and the importance of building nascent research capacity in the centers of the future. This community-supported and time-tested policy was ended by administrative decision at NSERC, without any evidence that NSERC staff realized the long-term policy implications of this decision.
We therefore call for the creation of appropriate vehicles that will allow various core disciplines to:
- Develop long-term vision.
- Develop national strategies for research that nurture nascent centers besides consolidating traditional ones.
- Look for other opportunities to leverage national resources, albeit industrial, regional or international.
- Think through and adopt appropriate discipline-specific research structures and funding mechanisms most suitable for an optimal outcome.
These plate-forms are to be developed in the context of scientific priorities of the government, and must be developed within over-arching structures, such as the Discovery Grant programs of NSERC.
It looks like NSERC is finally starting to listen!