Canada’s granting councils: “Mission drift” and inadequate governance

“The granting councils have played a pivotal role in developing both talent and ideas for Canada’s innovation agenda. Their core raison d’être has been and remains investigator-initiated research of both a basic and applied nature, and each needs to continue to be generously supported. However, there has been mission drift for the granting councils, as they have responded to pressure from government to be more business facing. While some business-facing programs might appropriately be under the aegis of the granting councils going forward, there is a need to clarify their mandates …”

No, this is not a statement from “Piece of Mind” or any other concerned Canadian researcher. Believe it or not, this is from the recent report of the R&D expert panel commissioned by the government of Canada to lead a review of all federal support to R&D.

And, after a year of consultations and deliberations, the panel is reporting a breach of mandate in the Tri-council’s current modus operandi. A “mission drift” away from the “investigator-initiated research” that they were created to support. This is serious stuff and the Presidents of NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC cannot be happy with such an assessment.

Another important finding of the report concerns issues of governance and accountability within the existing councils. Actually, the whole “Recommendation 6” in that report, “Establish a clear federal voice for innovation”, is about issues of leadership, coordination, governance and accountability.

“The Prime Minister might assign responsibility and accountability to a single minister…  The designated minister could provide leadership in helping clarify mandates for existing and new entities, including the three granting councils — Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) — and the many related third- party organizations currently being funded by the government to support business innovation.”

Actually, the report is quite specific about what is needed: An “Innovation Advisory Committee (IAC), with a mandate to provide whole-of-government advice on key goals, measurement and evaluation of policy and program effectiveness”.

“The IAC would be assisted by two standing subcommittees — the Science and Research Committee (SRC), focussed on “supply-push,” and the Business Innovation Committee (BIC), focussed on “demand-pull.”

“To ensure efficient use of resources, the IAC’s subcommittees could co-include existing members of the governing councils of SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR, as well as IRIC, once it is established. Over time, all relevant advisory functions across the government should also be consolidated into the IAC and its two subcommittees to the greatest extent possible.”

In other words, do away with the reportedly toothless and irrelevant “Advisory Councils” of NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR, and replace them with an empowered IAC, with an authority to oversee, coordinate, advise, and report while being accountable to government and to the country.

Every past or present person, who has experienced frustration and powerlessness, as a member of NSERC’s Council should feel vindicated by such a recommendation … provided, of course, that the government follows through.

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3 Responses to Canada’s granting councils: “Mission drift” and inadequate governance

  1. Readers of “Piece of Mind” may note the “mission drift” and lack of accountability in the report, but the summary on the website linked above tells a very different story. I suspect that the “highlights” listed in the summary are pretty much all that will have any impact on the powers that be. Business, investment, tax credits, growth, capital, intellectual property – all the shibboleths of the Conservative party are front and centre.

    Basic research support, not so much. In fact, as the preamble notes, the review could not “… touch … basic research conducted by institutions of higher education.” I am surprised that the review committee even made the statement Ghoussoub has extracted, given that its mandate excluded basic research.

  2. Pingback: The Business Development Bank gets into the “NSERC Act” | Piece of Mind

  3. Pingback: Was NSERC there? | Piece of Mind

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