The market for free money is infinite

The latest issue of “Contact” announces that only half of the $15-million federal increase to NSERC’s budget is going to the “Discovery Grant” program, even though the number of applicants to that program keeps increasing –from 3300 in 2010, to 3482 in 2011, to 3900 applicants for the 2012 competition. The other half of the new funding will be used for Collaborative R&D Grants, Industrial Research Chairs, and for the new kid on the granting block, NSERC’s most recent pride and joy, the “Engage” program. To the NSERC folks, the latter grants are pocket money for a “first date” with industry. To others, it is nothing but a “free lunch” paid for by the Canadian taxpayer.

What about this “Engage” program? In a nutshell, this is a relatively new funding scheme, which consists of having NSERC staffers distribute –with no scientific peer review– 25K awards to those academics who are willing to dedicate 6 months of their –or their students’– research effort to an industrial partner.  The company is not required to contribute a cent to the project, yet it is entitled to keep any resulting intellectual property. Who said there are no free lunches out there?

I –and others– have written about this controversial program before. You would think that NSERC’s officials will at least pause, reflect and try to review it by listening to a concerned community of researchers. To the contrary, NSERC’s management keeps flaunting it right and left as if they have decided that  “Engage” is to be their legacy, their ultimate contribution to the country’s R&D effort, even if it meant a serious  “disengagement” from the wishes and aspirations of Canada’s scientific community.

Granted, that community is probably more concerned about the demise of the “Discovery Grants” program, and may be seeing “Engage” as another vehicle that is siphoning money  away from advanced fundamental research. But recently, some credible voices are starting to see well beyond the historical tension between the “Discovery Grants” and the “Research Partnership Programs”, and are beginning to question the real value of the “Engage” scheme, as well as certain ethical issues it is raising

Even more remarkable is that the “revolted” people also happen to be academic researchers that work with industry, AKA the very people that NSERC is targeting with this program.

Indeed, the UBC computer science and engineering community is in the middle of a discussion, an electronic town hall meeting if you will.  In a widely distributed email, one of them wrote,

“The lack of reviewing contributes to a system where money is given to friends. It leads to corruption. Academics ought to be utterly against this state of affairs in light of the scientific values and practice we subscribe to.”

He adds,

“I find it sad when I meet with VCs downtown that they themselves deride this “Engage” deal and indeed see it as a source of corruption. “Engage” is doing worse for our image in industry than academics might think. Business people are smart and they are more used to smelling rotten ideas.”

This is damning! This public email was nothing short of a call for arms, and many of our colleagues replied by either calling for a public petition, or for a town hall meeting,  where NSERC’s President herself is asked to show up and answer some unsettling questions.

Another researcher in engineering, who also works in industry added fuel to the fire with his own set of testimonials.

“Programs such as ‘Engage’ are not inherently a bad idea but in their current form are very flawed and susceptible to abuse. …  to date I mostly heard negative feedback on the outcome”, such as:

“We worked hard for the company but when the time came for them to put something in through a CRD, they left us high and dry and just disappeared”,

“I have so many of those ‘Engage’, I just roll them over to fund students for a year or two”.

 “I have ‘Engage’ funding but I do not do anything, why would I lose all IP to my own work”.

 “I sent a student to the company and they can do what they want there for 6 months”.

The researcher adds:

“If the idea is to outsource “non-research and development work” to universities for free, then this is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money and a very serious problem for the future of research in Canada in general.

If the idea is to outsource (for free) “coming up with good ideas that can make products” to university inventors and innovators who are then asked to give away all their rights without any possibilities to even share the fruits of their hard labor, then this will inevitably demoralize researchers and grad students alike and stunt innovation.

Furthermore, it appears to me that the latter scenario means that taxpayer’s money is effectively being used to fund ‘weak/non-innovative’ companies. An equitable sharing of labor, responsibilities and outcome is definitely warranted if this program is to succeed or meaningfully ‘engage’.”

This post is getting long and it is time to start acting anyway. So I say that, unless NSERC does either some explaining or some path correcting, the following slogan, which came from one of the electronic town hall contributors, will soon make the rounds of Canada’s research community.

“Engage” should go. “Discovery grants” need to improve.


Here are more excerpts from that conversation:

 — The NSERC talk was however shocking and it was painful that we had to clap to it. Here I must say I am very concerned. The plot that NSERC put on the projector screen clearly showed how our academic discovery grants are shrinking. Unbelievably, the presenter argued that this is a good thing. She pointed out that we are doing extremely well in “Engage Grants”. She mentioned this is good for industry. I believe her claims are seriously flawed.

First, showing a reduction of “Discovery grants” in the same plot that shows that the administrative costs of NSERC have increased is hardly a good thing. It is alarming.

Second, “Engage Grants”, unlike “Discovery grants”, are not peer reviewed. See

Tax money is shifting from reviewed endeavors to un-reviewed ones. This is irresponsible. 

— Mathematical ideas developed as pure research over the last ten years … are revolutionizing the world of internet search and mobile computing and making some business folks rich. I repeat: pure research. Most of us in industry read the papers that you academics write and use those ideas, often without acknowledging because we regard the information as trade secrets. So as an industry guy, I argue that pure research is important (even if we don’t report it) and so “Discovery grants” should not be shrinking.

–Let me now comeback to the lack of peer reviewing. In business we learn that when we commit money to a project, it becomes important to look after it. If your money is not in the pot, you tend to care less. By handing out free money to companies, we are allowing for weak projects to survive. We are creating an industry that is less engaged (ironically) and less competitive.

— “Engage Grants” are good for academics desperate for money in the short term, but are terrible for both industry and academia in the medium and long terms. Note that industry already gets close to 60cents for every dollar they invest in research thanks to SRED grants – they are well looked after. They are looked after better than any company in the Bay Area. My industry colleagues there have let me know about how envious they are.

–An alternative model is the MITACS “Accelerate” one, which requires review and which requires that the company put in a small amount of money. The success of “Accelerate” demonstrates that peer reviewing works for both industry and academia.


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6 Responses to The market for free money is infinite

  1. As a chemist who was rated “SSS” in the last competion and thus did not get funded, it really burns me up to see the new money thrown at industry. Why can’t the NSERC brass understand that excellent scientists are being cut out of the system by their policies, that opportunities for students are being thrown away, that putting all our research eggs into a few baskets is bad planning?

    These “industrial partnerships” are prostituting Canada’s scientists to corporate interests.

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