The Tri-Council and CFI show Flaherty three “key directions to prosperity”

The joint pre-budget submission by NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC and CFI to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance is now public. Entitled, BUILDING PROSPERITY, 
Research is building a brighter future for Canadians”, the document is supposed to be the 2012 manifesto of the official gatekeepers of Canada’s research community. Between an inaugural quote by Minister Goodyear and a concluding one by the Prime minister (“Comme il se doit”), the document provides Flaherty three “key directions to prosperity”.  While the first recommendation is an old refrain, the other two may be promising … if only their argumentation made any sense.

Recommendation 1: Invest in strengthening partnerships to close the innovation gap

Flaherty has heard this song many times by now.  The problem is that he is now hearing different tunes coming out of the R&D expert panel report, where among the four, only NSERC is –barely– mentioned.

NSERC’s “Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation” is to build “on its current annual investments of approximately $330 million in partnered R&D … to help Canadian companies prosper by connecting and collaborating with colleges and universities”.

Fair enough, until one reads the next paragraph, which is simply astonishing!

“Of the close to 800 new collaborations that have occurred within the past 15 months, 442 involved companies that are new to NSERC’s partnership programs and 88% have been with small or medium-sized enterprises.”

The implicit implication here is that most of this was accomplished, $25K at a time, via the new “Engage” program. According to NSERC, “Engage” is the ultimate success story. We hope that the minister does not infer from such a submission that the ultimate recipe for a successful program is one where no scientific review by qualified personnel is needed, and where no company contribution is required.

“Of the companies involved in Engage Grants, 94% have gained new knowledge or developed new technologies as a result of their partnership, and 90% use or plan to use the new knowledge acquired through the partnership.”

This is not compatible with the findings of the R&D expert panel report which states that “survey of R&D-performing firms demonstrated that client awareness of most programs is low (with the exception of the SR&ED program and IRAP). We also found that the current suite of programs to develop and deploy the talent needed to meet the needs of innovative businesses is a patchwork of largely subscale initiatives.”  

The R&D expert panel report is even more damning. “Canada needs a fundamentally new approach to building public–private research collaborations in areas of strategic importance and opportunity for the economy.”  

SSHRC’s plan is the most original. This year, it is “adding a new “Digital Economy” priority area to support research and knowledge exchange on the nature, impact and integration of digital technologies in all aspects of our economy, society and culture.”

But let’s also remember that Mathematics, Science and Technology are at the heart of the digital economy and as such, SSHRC researchers need to collaborate with NSERC’s scientists in developing a well coordinated national framework for such an important thrust. This very timely initiative should be driven by the research community and not by bureaucrats.

Recommendation 2: Maintain Canada’s international competitiveness in research

While this recommendation makes perfect sense, its argumentation is bizarre. “All four agencies are making significant investments in Northern research on topics such as Aboriginal People’s health, food security in Northern communities and youth involvement issues.”

Whaaaat? Is this our only claim to international competitiveness in research?

Recommendation 3: Uphold Canada’s reputation as a top destination for global research talent

I kid you not!   This section starts by: 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.”

Fair enough, but we thought that the granting councils’ mandate is to support basic and fundamental university research too.

“There is also a need to distinguish between (i) the support by NSERC and CIHR of solution-driven research and (ii) their support of basic discovery research, ensuring that both receive adequate funding and are evaluated using appropriate and relevant metrics”.

This was said by the R&D expert panel and should have also been said by the gatekeepers of Canada’s research community. But then comes the following “re-assuring” paragraph:

 “The CFI, CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC are 
committed to supporting programs such as
 the Canada Research Chairs, the Canada 
Excellence Research Chairs, the Vanier 
Scholarships and the Banting Fellowships
— all key pieces of Canada’s vibrant
 research ecosystem”.

But how will the councils be supporting these researchers? Is it with the continuing slide of the success rates in the funding of their investigator-driven project grants? The last time we checked, it was 15% for CIHR, 30% for SSHRC and around 60% for NSERC’s discovery grants, without counting those who have already given up on the system.

The country needs to increase –or at least maintain—the level of support for competitively peer-reviewed advanced university research. This should have been said.

The reality is that, with the stagnant budgets of the “Discovery programs”, the required grant support for newly arrived CRCs and CERCs is effectively coming at the expense of the “other” equally performing Canadian researchers. This should have been said.

In the same vein, the supposedly “elite” Vanier scholarships and Banting fellowships have obviously been beneficial for the lucky few, but they may have also “motivated”  NSERC to dramatically cut the traditional graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships, at a time when the discovery grants of their supervisors keep shrinking.

Canada’s relatively stable granting system used to be a major source of attraction for foreign talent. What are they saying now, having seen the erratic and volatile new review system?

The so-called “Canada’s 
research ecosystem” is being subjected to confining “conservation laws”, and its “vibrancy” check-mated by deterministic zero-sum games. This should have been said.

The way to support this country’s researchers is simple. Ask the councils to abide with their original mandate and to stick with their very “raison-d’être”.

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3 Responses to The Tri-Council and CFI show Flaherty three “key directions to prosperity”

  1. Pingback: The market for free money is infinite | Piece of Mind

  2. Pingback: Canada’s granting councils: “Mission drift” and inadequate governance | Piece of Mind

  3. Peter Bell says:

    Rereading this article in April 2012 and it seems even more important now. Big decisions are being made. Thanks again for providing this venue to access and interpret the information!

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