Call your VP-Research before Friday the 13th at the Tri-council!

“My Mathematics” is going well lately. It is not always the case, so blogging has taken the backseat. It is unfortunate because much needs to be communicated before tomorrow’s meeting in Ottawa between the VPs-Research of Canada’s universities and Tri-council officials. No agenda has been distributed, and those in the know are being unusually tight-lipped about the content. It may be a sign of the times, but Canada’s frontline researchers should be entitled to weigh-in at least on the agenda of these discussions. So don’t shy away from telling your VP-Rs what you think, and to urge them to speak up about your concerns. Tell them to –at least– stop drinking the Kool-Aid and get over the current state of denial induced by self-congratulatory press releases.   

What is –or must be– on the menu for tomorrow’s Friday the 13th meeting at the Tri-council? Well, every item below deserves its own blog post, but they may have to settle –for now– for these abbreviated versions. I have already written about some of NSERC’s challenges. Jo VanEvery has also described the broader implications on the Tri-council of the 2012 budget, with her expert emphasis on the SSHRC programs.

1. First of all, the Presidents of NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR will say how “positive” the latest federal budget has been for Canada’s R&D. “Bien-entendu”, they were asked to “be pursuing operational efficiencies and reallocation of funding from lower-priority programs to generate savings.” In return, “The Government will fully reinvest 2012–13 savings in priority areas of the granting councils, particularly in industry-academic partnerships.” Yes, it is $37-million worth of re-allocation to these partnership programs, but the presidents will be re-assuring by promising to do so without affecting their “core” programming.

I do hope that enlightened university officials will ask for more details about what is meant by “core” programs. NSERC’s President, for one, will pledge to protect the discovery grants, but what about the other programs under the “Research Grants and Scholarships” envelope? Will the re-allocations affect the number of postdoctoral fellowships, of graduate scholarships, and of CREATE opportunities? Will this re-allocation finish off the “Major Resources Support program” (MRS), which was already hit by the 2009 “stimulus budget” cuts?

Are these programs less important than the Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships, the Industrial R&D Fellowships, the Industrial Undergraduate Student Research Awards, the Strategic Workshops, and Frontiers? Are the above expenditures less relevant than NSERC’s regional offices? Will NSERC cut its under-subscribed, yet partnership-driven programs?

The President of SSHRC may have a more challenging task. Transferring $7-million from core programs to a much less developed SSHRC academic-business partnership program will be painful. This may explain why they are not releasing the results of the “Insight” competition until mid-April.

2. And can someone please ask the question of why the Tri-council (and hence the universities) keep losing out to the National Research Council (NRC)? Why did the government –in spite of a damning Jenkins report– give $65M to the NRC and another $110 million per year for its Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), while asking the tri-council to pursue operational efficiencies, to re-allocate $37-million for this year, and to likely cut the same amount from each of their next two budgets?

3. What about the role of the universities in the future of academic-business research partnerships?  Are they capable and willing to contemplate the consequences of having the NRC serve as a “concierge” and a common application portal and service to help businesses find the right programs for their needs,” including those of the Tri-councilIs the NRC the right vehicle to lead the peer-review process (if any), and ultimately the decision-making on Networks of Centres of Excellence, CRDs, strategic grants, among other programs?

Advanced education is the soil from which “innovation” grows. The universities must play a leading role in structuring and implementing how best their researchers can contribute to this important process. That Ottawa is so far away –geographically and operationally– from most of them, should not prevent academic leadership from being actively engaged with their government in the process of stimulating and supporting research, discovery, development, innovation, commercialization, and job creation.

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