Who is standing up for Canada’s basic research?

Innovation is “not a linear progression of basic science into new products“. It requires “patience, persistence and investment”. This is from a call from the League of European Research Universities for the European Union to make substantial long-term investments in basic research via the European Research Council (ERC).

The alliance of 22 prominent European research-intensive universities, made the call, in a statement published in a number of European newspapers ahead of a meeting of European leaders on research and innovation policy, which was held on February 4th, 2011.

When was the last time you heard such a message in North America? There was Obama’s 2009 speech to the US National Academy of Sciences. But it is now history, since he is backpedaling fast, under the pressure of the new republican majority in the house, as he is being forced to cut the National Science Foundation.

What about Canada? Well, in its 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities, NSERC announced its intention 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. But here is NSERC’s explanation.

“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 reflect 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”

Compare NSERC’s cuts to basic research, its admittedly “modest” planned increases to the Discovery Grant program and the silence of Canada’s research universities,  to the bold statements of the League of European Research Universities calling for “substantial long-term investments in basic research”.

Also compare the European stand to NSERC’s recent announcement of moving support from discovery to industry in the CREATE program. And only yesterday, they announced new money for “Colleges Technology Access Centres”, and for industrial postdoctoral fellowships. NSERC and the government of Newfoundland will each contribute 30K for postdoctoral fellows who will be earning  70K each, in order to work as a full-time employee for a company that will be contributing 10K to the salary.

Research is “quite simply the foundation for Europe’s future competitiveness”, and the focus of universities on basic science “lays the foundation for discovery and innovation”, said the call of the league of European Universities. Their laboratories “develop the human capital that businesses need for success”, it adds. They also warn that “the world is not waiting for us”, citing the “soaring” investment of China in science.

The European Research Council was set up in 2007. How? “The idea for establishing the Council first came out of widespread discussions between European scientists, scholars and research umbrella organizations on the need for a structure at EU level to support investigator-driven fundamental research of the highest quality and combat the prevailing fragmentation of research efforts in Europe”.

Maybe we should renew our call for the establishment of a North-American Research Council? Why doesn’t the NAFTA concept extend to research and innovation?

Finally, the ERC aims to promote wholly investigator-driven, or ‘bottom-up’ frontier research. According to the council, the term ‘frontier research’ was coined for ERC activities since they will be directed towards fundamental advances at and beyond the ‘frontier’ of knowledge.

NSERC has also initiated a “Frontiers initiatives”.

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7 Responses to Who is standing up for Canada’s basic research?

  1. Nilima says:

    Thanks for this post. It is indeed worrying that there is no mechanism for the Canadian scientific establishment to engage government with either authority or credibility.

    About the partnership programs: there is a serious problem with
    (a) the pricing model
    and (b) the quality control.

    By (a) I mean that Tricouncil has decided to offer the research services of academics to industry at near-zero cost to industry. If you’re a mom-and-pop store, and you can have the undivided attention of a PhD or academic researcher and their lab for under 10K, why would you invest in building your own R&D? Why would you employ the graduate or invest in infrastructure? If, moreover, the academics are pushed towards development work, then there’s even less incentive.

    The granting councils are exacerbating this problem by referring to ‘the cost of hiring a PhD’. What cost, pray, is this? Are there other government subsidies to companies to hire lawyers? Accountants? Marketing people?
    Government has truly distorted the ‘marketplace for ideas’ by foisting this market model on us. Some academics are ‘R&D suppliers’, and ostensibly some companies demand their work. Tricouncil has no business assigning a 0 dollar value to the interchange. This will eventually hurt hiring, consulting, and other self-initiated collaborations.

    Regarding (b): in an era where companies hire teams to assess the quality of codes, having near zero-oversight of research quality via these partnership programs is odd. Who is the guarantor of research quality, viability, and ethics?

    In strictly economic terms, if both the seller and the buyer are benefitting from a middleman giving them cash, then neither has ‘any skin in the game’. The seller gains no matter what the quality of the product, and the buyer gains no matter what the quality of the product. Indeed, if the only criteria to get the middleman’s money is to ask, then there is truly no competition. This marketplace is efficient, cynical, and intellectually arid.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      I couldn’t have said it better Nilima. Thank you. Do you care to be a guest blogger on “Piece of Mind”? You have obviously been thinking about these issues … And at a deeper level than our friends in Ottawa.

  2. Ian Yellowley says:

    Innovation is “not a linear progression of basic science into new products” and requires “patience, persistence and investment”.

    Music to my ears! But does it mean the same things to all of us?

    A simple University directed PUSH approach to knowledge generation is for instance unlikely to be effective in providing benefit to the institutions and sponsors of the research. The results of such a strategy are loaded into the landfill of the open literature and connection to use requires considerable diligence and luck on the part of those patient and desperate enough to pick through this repository.
    I would argue that the PULL approach as practised, here at least, is also less effective than it could be.

    It seems likely there are 3 very important components embodied in the path that leads from basic research to final benefit. Using generic terms these are, creativity…the making of something different or new, analysis…the (complete) understanding of something, and usefulness…the formulation of need, what is already available and what values accrue to specific functionality.

    Design is a top down process that requires a high level of creativity and understanding of use in the generation of high level alternatives, (branches). Some analysis is also needed to allow evaluation of alternatives, (bounding), as we track down through the tree. As one descends towards the final stages of design the process generally becomes more mechanistic and the choices have less impact on the final value of the product..although of course one needs to guarantee that whatever we create actually works as intended.

    We invest and reward high levels of creativity and analysis within the research community but we tend to serve out the results in an ineffective manner. It is very nice to change the efficiency of a system, product or process a little at a time but true value and competitive advantage soars when we see a new way to achieve functionality or indeed see a need for completely new functionality.

    The current PULL and PUSH models tend then to promote an interaction between the research community and practitioners within industry who are working in the more detailed aspects of system design. I believe very strongly that we should seek cooperation between researchers, (or people who really know what research is being done), on one side, and the high level “design decision makers” in government and industry. This would inevitably lead to the targeting of “big picture” research which has the potential of maximum impact within the economy and of course is most fun for researchers to pursue!

    I understand that there are many cultures within our Universities and some perhaps have already developed effective arrangements to PUSH or PULL research between creator and user. I have always hoped that Engineering through it’s interest in Design could help form a bridge across which this cooperation could flourish. We did make some national progress in this direction a decade or so ago but it seems that the enthusiasm for such efforts has declined in favour of the traditional research and teaching models…a great shame in my opinion!

  3. The supplementary funding for industrial postdoctoral fellows described in NSERC’s March 7 In Partnership bulletin ( http://www.nsercpartnerships.ca/Bulletins/Bulletin-Bulletin_eng.asp?ID=52 ) is available only to applicants for NSERC Industrial R&D Fellowships from Newfoundland and Labrador. Supplements are funded entirely by Research & Development Corporation (RDC) of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), which have just begun a partnership with NSERC ( see http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/PD-NP/ACOA-APECO_eng.asp for more information ). NSERC’s contribution of up to $30,000 toward to the salary of each Industrial R&D Fellowship has not changed as a result of this partnership.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      I stand corrected regarding the NSERC contribution (I had already done the correction).
      The point here is (as stressed by the commenter above): with no or with minimal contribution from industry, and no serious peer review, many of the NSERC partnership programs are becoming pure subsidies to industry with “near zero-oversight. Who is then the guarantor of research quality, viability, and ethics?.”
      Moreover, 10K from the company out of 70K salary is not a good or viable model (see Nilima’s comment). This should also be compared with university postdocs’ salaries (normally 40-50K) co-sponsored by supervisors’ (limited) Discovery grants, and with almost half their salary coming from the universities where they have to teach besides doing research.

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