The government will continue to make “key investments in science and technology” that are necessary to sustain a “modern competitive economy,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Davos today. He then added, “but we believe that Canada’s less-than-optimal results for those investments is a significant problem for our country.” It sounds like shake-up time for Canadian government support for R&D. I say that it is also an opportunity for the leadership of Canada’s research councils to shine!
What’s at stake here? Well, Stephen Harper seems to be quite serious about taking a good look at the recommendations of the R&D expert panel. He had already hinted at reforming the SR&ED programme. After all, that’s where a good chunk of government’s money goes, $3.5 billion of it. And the recommendations of the R&D expert panel seem to be sound, practical and most importantly, implementable without rocking corporate Canada’s boat too much.
The big question is what will happen to Canada’s Research Councils: NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR, and the NRC. Will the government implement the 5% cut that NSERC’s president, Suzanne Fortier, has already hinted at? You would hope that this will not be the case for the simple reason that the Tri-council did not profit from the good years of stimulus budget –actually they got cut– so there is a good reason for them not to have to contribute to rebalancing the budget. But, what if these cuts do happen?
That’s where the leadership –and ultimately the legacies– of the presidents of the Tri-council will come into play. Will they move to protect advanced research at Canada’s universities? Will they show up to protect basic research? Even more importantly, will they take the lead in guiding government and aligning its objectives with the hopes and aspirations of Canada’s advanced research community? Will they properly articulate the concept of a research pipeline? That if you don’t feed basic science into the front of the pipeline, the commercialisable stuff coming out of the end will quickly dry up?
And why did I single out these pieces of the research pipeline? Well, first because they are the components that have been neglected and alarmingly weakened in the last few years, especially at NSERC. Basic research, represented by the Discovery programme, has been losing ground lately, mostly to industrially driven research programs. To make the story short, here are a few illustrative graphs of how the three major components of NSERC funding have been evolving in the last 10 years.
This data should be analyzed in a context where the number of applicants to the Discovery Grants program keeps increasing from 3300 in 2010, to 3482 in 2011, to 3900 applicants for the 2012 competition. On the other hand, we have seen a major shift of resources towards supporting “Engage” (already up five-fold –at $25-million– since its inception a couple of years ago), and towards the surprisingly lobby-efficient new kids on the granting block, the colleges. All in the name of “Innovation”.
It should be also clear that university-industry research partnerships should be supported and strengthened, but surely not at the detriment of the programs that maintain Canada at the forefront of investigator-driven fundamental research and discovery of the highest quality.
Finally, there is another more drastic scenario, at least for the NRC and NSERC, which was also essentially proposed by the R&D panel. The government may simply proceed with a major restructuring of the NRC — e.g., dismantling some of its institutes — and of NSERC. The proposal calls for the creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC) to streamline and deliver the more than 60 programs across 17 different government departments in support of the federal government’s business innovation agenda. This will then include IRAP and probably most of NSERC’s Research Partnership Programs, leaving NSERC in a situation where it can really focus on its original mission.
This latter scenario may however be too bold and too ambitious for the cautious ways and slow pace under which Ottawa operates, even if Stephen Harper seems to be serious, able and ready to shake things up.
The government likes the idea of Canada “punching above its weight” in military matters. The same terminology should be applied to fundamental scientific research. Punch above our weight in the world of research will mean a better life for Canadians as well as other residents of the planet in the future. As far as “results” go, meaning “commercial success”, this is indeed a tough problem to solve and requires experimentation and creative thought. Many organizations, institutions and governments look at the culture of a research center such as Stanford University, and the commerce it has spawned, and have tried to duplicate it. It is not easy, most do not succeed, at least not yet. I doubt that a major reorganization by the Canadian government of scientific and commercialization research support is going to achieve much, because it would consist of gambles on what might work. Such gambles are better taken in small, regional, doses to see how they fare.
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