Time to draw a line in the sand

For the longest time, we have been told that Government is skeptical of, even hostile to, the concept of funding basic research, and that any open criticism of NSERC could have dire consequences, since it will give politicians a good excuse to slash and burn our favorite program.

Guess what? Times must have changed. Government seems to know better than ever which programs are efficient, accountable, and desired by the research community, and which ones need to be reviewed and re-evaluated. Indeed, as promised in the 2010 budget, the Government has launched a comprehensive review of all federally funded programs in support of business Research and Development: More than 100 programs, costing the Canadian taxpayer over 7 billion dollars: essentially all the programs that are supposed to contribute in one way or another to the innovation agenda.

NSERC’s share of this granting bonanza — through the Research Partnership Program (RPP) — is close to $300 million dollars, yet last year, the NSERC leadership decided that we are not doing enough of that and committed over $6 millions dollars to two new programs: Engage grants, designed to cover direct project costs for up to 6 months and a total of $25,000, and Interaction grants worth $5,000 over three-months to help set up qualifying industry-academic partnerships.

As Rob Annan puts it: “These programs fund NSERC-eligible researchers who can address a “company-specific problem” for an industrial partner. That’s right: NSERC will subsidize companies to effectively hire academics to do their work. Our academics, instead of dedicating themselves to fundamental, peer-reviewed research, can be branch plants for industry. And furthermore, NSERC will pay for it!”

Oh, and incidentally, funding decisions do not require scientific peer-review, and NSERC’s policy on intellectual property had to change (from ownership by the investigator to that of the business partner). Two pillars in NSERC’s intellectual foundation are gone so as to accommodate the new programs.

At the Council’s creation in 1978, the Discovery Grant Program accounted for two-thirds of NSERC’s budget. Now it hovers around 33 per cent. To be fair, this is not solely due to an inflation in the RPP budget and other targeted programs, but also for increases in the NSERC budget that accompanied the Canada Research Chairs (CRC), graduate scholarships and other magnificent programs. But one should mention that the substantial number of new CRCs have also added pressure to the Discovery Grant program, yet the latter’s budget was never adjusted accordingly.

But now it looks like the situation for academic researchers will continue to worsen  since NSERC have announced plans to cut $14.5 million from the Discovery Grant program over the next three years. Indeed, NSERC states in its 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities that it intends to reduce funding for basic research a further 3.6 per cent from $364.9 million in 2009–2010 to $351.9 million by 2012–2013. On the other hand, the “innovation” budget, meanwhile, which supports commercialization initiatives and university-industry partnerships, will be increasing again over the same period.

What makes matters worse is that they now have found a way to start changing the culture even within the DG program. How?  69% of the current Discovery Accelerator Supplements, where the new increase for the DG program is supposedly going, are now targeted at areas in line with government priorities.

NSERC’s raison d’être has been, and will always be “protected” by the thousands of university researchers, who believe in, contribute to, leverage, and are ready to defend the Discovery Grant program. On the other hand, NSERC’s Research Partnership program is just one of more than a hundred government programs and organizations that supports commercialization initiatives and university-industry partnerships.

I say it is time to draw a line in the sand and stop underestimating Government’s capacity to gauge the goals, aspirations and priorities of Canada’s research community, and its determination to fight for them.

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11 Responses to Time to draw a line in the sand

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  4. Funding decisions for Engage Grants do not undergo new peer review, but applicants must demonstrate that they have held a peer reviewed grant in the natural sciences or engineering from a recognized federal or provincial granting agency within the past six years. This requirement ensures that the researcher meets standards of excellence while allowing the Engage program to respond quickly to proposals. Applicants must also identify how the project will generate economic, social and environmental benefits beyond the partner company.

    The $356.4 million identified in the 2010-2011 Report on Plans and Priorities represents NSERC’s total planned spending on basic research, which includes more than just the Discovery Grants program. The expected reductions noted in this report reflects the termination of the Special Research Opportunity program and the winding down of support for International Polar Year projects. Actual spending on the Discovery Grants program shows steady increases over most of the past decade, with the budget remaining stable in recent years. NSERC plans modest increases over the next few years.

    The research areas chosen as government priorities in the Science and Technology Strategy were originally identified by the Council of Canadian Academies in its report The State of Science and Technology in Canada. The CCA report and S&T Strategy included broad input from the Canadian science and technology community. The targeted areas deliberately cover a very broad range of research of importance to the research community and Canada as a whole. Approximately 70 per cent of Discovery Grants include components that fall naturally within priority areas.

    The S&T Strategy sets clear priorities for Canada’s S&T leadership, including NSERC. Science, technology and innovation leadership must follow an approach that includes promoting world class excellence, focusing on priorities, encouraging partnerships and enhancing accountability.

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