R&D expert panel: All eyes are on Naylor!

No wonder Indira Samarasekera had stressed in her submission to the R&D panel, that NSERC should “distinguish its funding of solution-driven research from basic discovery research.”  The President of the University of Alberta must know a thing or two about the fate of organizations suffering from a “dual mandate syndrome”. NSERC’s president, Suzanne Fortier, doesn’t even think the review is needed. “Enough reports. We’ve seen enough,” she said in a recent interview with the Globe & Mail.  Soon we should know what University of Toronto’s President, David Naylor thinks!

The report of the Government R&D review expert panel should come out anytime now. Recall that this panel is supposed to scrutinize, evaluate, and hopefully streamline all federal outlets dedicated to the support of Canada’s innovation and commercialization strategy at a rate of $7-billion per year. The problem is that there are so many of them that one doesn’t know where to start. Just take a look at this for a partial list.

In my opinion, there are essentially three main “pieces” to the puzzle: The “Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit program” (SR&ED), the “National Research Council” (NRC) and NSERC’s “Research Partnership Program” (RPP).

I will write later about my thoughts on SR&ED. Ideas on how to restructure the NRC were discussed in a previous post, though it was before its new president, John McDougall announced his somewhat controversial plans for the organization.  Still, it shouldn’t take 26 institutes and $1-billion dollars to develop his four “Flagship Programs”: Printable electronics, resilient wheat, Bio-composite materials, and Algae!

I said then that the NRC should be restructured in a fundamental way. The same goes for NSERC. The lack of clarity in their ever-changing mandate is causing much concern within Canada’s research and innovation circles. What is ironic is that both the NRC and NSERC have been there before.

Indeed, according to the Act that created the NRC, the council had initially a dual mandate: The first was to support its institutes, which were initially conceived as government research laboratories operated and managed by scientists. A second mandate consisted of providing grants in support of university research across Canada.

As is invariably the case, the management of a dual mandate organization is an unstable equilibrium that often succumbs to a tendency of favoring one mandate over the other. The reasons can either be ideological convictions of a given administration, or pragmatic bureaucratic moves that are often related to government funding.  The NRC eventually drifted into a mode that favored its own researchers and institutes, and its unbalanced agenda ultimately tipped against the universities.  Those were the heydays of the NRC, when its research laboratories flourished, while Canada’s universities lagged behind. Canada’s best researchers, such as Nobel laureates G. Herzberg, John Polanyi and Harry Kroto, were (and wanted to be) at the NRC.

It was probably this sorry state of research at Canada’s universities that led government to carve out “the universities’ piece” out of the NRC and to create an independent NSERC with the express purpose of supporting basic research at Canada’s universities, through a competitive peer-review granting process.  It didn’t take long after that to see the impact of such a move.  Canada’s universities took a quantum leap forward, and now lead in research prominence, both nationally and internationally.

Eventually, NSERC initiated its own “Research Partnership Program” in order to engage university researchers with Canadian industries, and history seems to be repeating itself as this branch of NSERC kept growing in size and in parity with the original piece, which supports Research Grants, Scholarships and Fellowships. It is now NSERC’s turn to struggle with a dual mandate, leading to the predictable outcome of an unbalanced agenda that continues to tilt towards the more short-term focused, more PR-friendly, and hence sexier industrially oriented research.

It is a fact that NSERC’s mandate of supporting basic research is hardly mentioned these days by the current NSERC leadership. It is simply too tempting and much easier to make the case for deliverable-based academic research by overstating how it will drive innovation in real time.

The balance may have now tipped far enough in one direction that we should be in for a new drastically corrective measure. Moreover, the latest proliferation of hybrid and therefore confusing programs (Frontiers, Create, Interaction, Idea to Innovation, Industrial postdocs, strategic grants, research networks, etc.…) is leading Indira Samarasekera and others to call for more clarity and distinction between NSERC’s funding of solution-driven research from its support for basic discovery research.

The NRC has also ventured again outside its own network of institutes to support partnerships through the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), which awards about $250M annually to Canadian Industry to become more innovative.

Time may have come to carve out again the innovation, partnership and commercialization elements from both the NRC and NSERC into a new organization that has the sole responsibility of doing just that. Canada needs a new Council whose focus is on managing the mandate of IRAP ($250,000,000), but also the mission of NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) Grants ($55,000,000), Engage and Interaction grants ($6,100,000), Collaborative Health Research Projects ($5,700,000) as well as the Tri-council’s Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research ($30,000,000), and the Industrial R&D Internship (IRDI) Program ($6,900,000).  This new organization should also be the one supporting the new programs for colleges, since they are now in the business of bringing the fruits of academic research to market. Mandate this new council to focus on building bridges between research organizations and industry. Staff it with a blend of scientists, business-people and lawyers. Link it with the Universities Industry Liaison Offices. Also use it to evaluate the worthiness of the R&D research incentivized by SRED.

NSERC could then be totally refocused on supporting competitive peer-reviewed advanced basic research at Canada’s universities. After all, it is precisely when “basic research doesn’t sell in Ottawa anymore”, that we need to double our effort in making the case … and also saying it as it is. We need a leadership that states unequivocally that University research is a worthwhile endeavor to increase our knowledge and understanding of our world. That University research also contributes enormously to a modern, innovative economy, as a repository of advanced technical knowledge, a training ground for HQP, and also as a generator of inventions. That some University research will be exploited immediately, but that the best and deepest might not exhibit its innovative power until far in the future. That it is also valuable for its own sake.

Will Naylor, who is the most senior academic on the R&D panel and who will undoubtedly have the universities’ interests on his mind, make the move?

It is true that any recommendation that looks like a call for the break-up of NSERC might seem too risky. Some university scientists, who are now addicted to “fee-for-service” type programs and to easy federal money that comes through industrial matching, may well be unhappy to go back to rigorous evaluation standards in order to earn their grants. And some universities may worry that their precious “indirect cost of research” funding may be jeopardized. So it will take a visionary to see beyond the self-serving arguments to do what is right for the long-term interests of the country.

I guess it is not so easy to change things in Canada. But it was done in 1976, and maybe it could be done again in 2012, now that we have a “strong stable national majority government”, that is not so “conservative” when Canada’s research and innovation outlook is at stake.

But according to the Globe and Mail,  “Dr. Fortier said she isn’t particularly worried about an ongoing review of Ottawa’s R&D spending, adding: “I know what we have to do.”

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1 Response to R&D expert panel: All eyes are on Naylor!

  1. Interesting suggestion, to create a separate agency to manage/fund/support the academic-industrial nexus. You are right to say that university researchers who benefit from the current system should look beyond their own short-term interests, but I have a different concern.

    Once the industrial collaborations etc. have been hived off from basic science funding, it strikes me as very likely that the NSERC rump that remains will simply be allowed to wither away. An agency that is all about politician- and media-friendly programs will inevitably invite comparisons with the “other” agency which will be alleged to be about entitlements and counting angels on pinheads. I can’t see basic science funding surviving very long after being severed from applied science.

    I don’t like to make such an argument because in the best of worlds we could recognize that applied and basic research are equally important pillars of a strong economic, educational and intellectual climate. However, it is obvious that our world is far from ideal. It seems that intellectual and educational issues must scramble for crumbs from the economic development banquet, and I don’t think NSERC’s Discovery program would benefit from being pushed further from where the crumbs are falling.

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