The VPs-Research of all universities across Canada have been invited to a Tri-Council meeting “around Research and Innovation” in Ottawa. Officials are being very tight-lipped about the content of the meeting, which is scheduled for April 13th. What is it about? What should be done now that Government has asked the Tri-council to move $37-million to industry-academic research partnership initiatives in their 2012-13 budgets? What should the cuts be, when another $37-million is gone from their next year’s budgets? Is it about the imminent consolidation of business partnership programs that the Jenkins report recommended and that Gary Goodyear keeps alluding to? The answer may be all of the above, because the 2012 federal budget has/should indeed be causing major headaches to university officials all over Canada as much as to the Presidents of the three research councils.
What are the issues? Well, contrary to what the AUCC president, Paul Davidson, hastily announced last week, the 2012 federal budget will not preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding. The research councils were actually asked a few months ago by government to put forward plans for a potential 5-10% cut to their budgets. On the surface, it looks like the Tri-council has managed to dodge the bullet, since instead of proceeding with these cuts, the government asked them to re-direct some of their funds to industry-academic research partnership programs. So where is the problem?
Well, unless NSERC had the foresight to recommend that all of its potential cuts should come from its Research Partnership Program (RPP) –a highly unlikely occurence in view of this joint submission to Flaherty— then Suzanne Fortier will have to immediately re-allocate $15-million from NSERC’s discovery and scholarship programs in favor of its RPP programs. The situation is even worse for SSHRC and CIHR since their industry-academic partnership programs are not as developed as NSERC’s in comparison to their core programs. I will let you decide whether this is a headache worth sharing with Canada’s VP-Rs, who will surely be on the receiving end of their researchers wrath once they hear about their continually shrinking discovery grants.
But there is another important issue that I hope the VP-Rs will not shy away from putting on the discussion table in Ottawa. The Jenkins report has recommended the creation of an “Industrial Research and Innovation Council” (IRIC) to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs. It was not announced in the budget, but is surely in the works. What is noticeable however, is that Gary Goodyear seems to be aiming to park IRIC within the National Research Council (NRC), since it is supposed to encompass the “Industrial Research Assistance Program” (IRAP), the latter being a darling of government –having received $110 million per year “to double its support to companies”. Word on the street is that the $65M for the NRC from the 2012 budget “to help it refocus on business-led, industry-relevant research”, is essentially a downpayment for Goodyear’s vision of IRIC, as “a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs (a “concierge”),” within the NRC.
Needless to say, the existence of IRIC could make the Tri-council involvement in partnership programs redundant, including the Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE), and sooner or later, there will be pressure to consolidate and move the RPP and NCE programs (and hence, their budgets) to the NRC, including the $37-million top-up (and probably double that, next year) which the Tri-council is supposed to cough up for partnership programs, as well as the additional $12-million per year earmarked for the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence program.
This scenario should sound alarm bells for the VP-Rs of Canada’s universities. They should be pondering what will happen to the industry-academic research partnership initiatives, once they move to an outlet that has hardly had any interaction with the universities since the founding of the Tri-council, several decades ago. What will be the role, influence and scale of industry-academic research within an organization whose mandate is to deliver the federal government’s business innovation programs, without either the capacity of reaching out to the academic world, or a sufficient understanding of the role of higher education in the innovation system?
The VPs-Research should ask for the conversion rate on NSERC Engage grants into CRD program grants. As far as I can find, that conversion rate data has not been publicly released. The VPs-Research should insist that the fund for “first dates” (with unquantified benefits) be cut before Discovery Grants are cut.
If true, what a bait-and-switch this is. I’d admire the slickness, were it (again) not so predictable.
Step 1: ‘Across the board cuts’ to impact only the basic research programs at Tricouncil.
Step 2: ‘Investment in innovation’ to benefit only industrial partnership programs.
Step 3: ‘Consolidation to IRIC’ to then move the partnership program funding out of Tricouncil. This made it initially look like Canadian research was gaining in the budget, with some later ‘refinements’. Even the AUCC bought this Kool-Aid.
Imagine the public upset if the order of these operations was changed. Imagine if Tricouncil had only basic research programs to start with, which were then cut, with the funding explicitly moved to the industrial-research programs at IRIC.
There would be fury, I imagine. The net flow of money would be the same, but the optics wildly different. People would have question why other funds aren’t found for research conducted by public universities for the benefit of corporations. As you yourself wrote on March 29th, Naylor and friends may regret ‘not having proposed this in the first place, with an additional recommendation to the effect that the RPP cash should stay behind at NSERC in support of basic research at universities, and that new monies (from SR&ED savings) be found for IRIC.’
I imagine Tricouncil itself may come to regret moving funding into the RPP programs. When the money moves, Tricouncil will be much, much smaller than before. The overall strategy is cute, and I should try it as a mechanism for rationing my children’s candy.
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What I’ve heard more than once from vp-research and associate Deans (research) when asked about the erosion of basic research funding is that we better stop complaining and change the research that we do. I’m not sure that there is that many true advocates left to fight this battle, but let’s hope.
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And virtuoso violinists should switch to electric guitar? This is unattributed hearsay from an anonymous author and I find it incredible without more details. Which VP-Research and Associate Deans (Research) said that? If that is their viewpoint, what strategic advice should be given to researchers probing the basic issues like pure mathematics, theoretical physics, fundamental chemistry?
Well, after having my DG rejected again, I for one have had enough. There is no place in the NSERC model for a small research group working in basic science anymore. I cannot work any harder than I have been to increase my productivity, and without money I cannot increase my HQP, so that’s it. I’m done.
I congratulate all of you out there who are able to prosper under the current system, and I hope you will be able to keep some basic science happening amidst all the pressure to serve industry.
To young scientists just starting out, my advice is: 1) be sure to get a job at a university in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta or BC. Do not bother with provinces that do not have substantial industrial economies and long histories of provincial support for graduate studies and research; 2) focus your research solely on topics that are core technologies for companies in your locale; 3) be sure to schmooze as many industrial people as possible, as well as politicians and other social leaders in your community; 4) don’t waste time on education, just crank out the HQP as fast as you can.
This is extremely sad, and you may be right about the system failing the still emerging provinces. But please don’t give up on your research or on trying to fund it.
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