R&D front: Signs that government may be starting to get it

And no, I am not sending out a public bouquet to government à la Naylor-Toope. I am talking about a government that is starting to realize that it’s more important to tune into the dreams and aspirations of Canada’s research community than to serenade itself with congratulatory and self-serving press releases of those who can’t do otherwise. There are indeed signs that, at least on the R&D front, the Harper government is listening more and more to Canada’s frontline researchers than to its own bureaucrats, the AUCC, or to university administrators whose job descriptions seem to have written all over them, in bold font: “Keep government happy at all costs by telling them what they want to hear.” Allow me to explain.

March 29th was budget release day in Canada. The AUCC president had hurriedly issued a press release offering praise for “investments (that) will preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding.” Most universities websites followed suit in congratulating the government. The presidents of CIHR and NSERC signed off on essentially identical press releases describing the rosy outcome for research in the 2012 budget. The President of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, wrote a glowing letter that MP James Rajotte read triumphantly during question period at the House of commons: “your outstanding support for advanced research in science, technology, and education and training in Budget 2012 […] reaffirms the Government of Canada’s commitment to post-secondary education and research while further encouraging innovation in the private sector.” etc, etc…

It didn’t take long before hell broke loose, just as I had anticipated. Indeed,  it quickly became clear that the last federal budget was not really a bearer of good news for Canada’s research community. Support for advanced basic research, the cornerstone of universities’ contributions to discovery and innovation, was being shortchanged again. The focus of the budget was on knowledge transfer, commercialization and industry partnerships. Even the support for the last trio was seen as a timid attempt by government to compensate the business community for having implemented certain cuts in the SR&ED program that the Jenkins panel had recommended.

First came the press release of the Canadian Consortium for Research, then an open  letter of protest was sent to members of government and of parliament. It was signed by 47 leaders and directors of various research facilities and labs that were targeted for cuts, even elimination, following the cancellation of NSERC’s Major Resources Support (MRS) and the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) programs. Eventually, the media and parliament picked up on the mood of the revolting research community, which eventually culminated in the “Death of Evidence” mock funeral in Ottawa, a protest that reverberated around the globe.

But even then, and in spite of all the turmoil, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, parliamentary secretary to Environment Minister Peter Kent, was still saying that “the government has received lots of positive feedback on the decisions it made in the last budget and that the academic community has been pleased with how much money was invested in research and development.”

And guess what? MP Rempel was telling the truth. The government had indeed received lots of positive feedback on the decisions it made in the last budget. But this begged the question: from whom? Tri-council presidents? University administrators? The AUCC? Or was it from the lucky few special initiatives such as CIAR and Genomics who had managed to secure themselves their own precious line items in the budget?

The problem was that just by consulting with these usual suspects before the budget, then listening to them right afterwards, there was no way for government to get to know what the front-liners in the research community want and what they felt about the new policies. Not until they started going public, that is. Which is the main point of this post.

“If we don’t stand up for science, nobody will,” Katie Gibbs, one of the rally’s organizers, told the crowd. Indeed, people in positions of power need to know the impact of their decision-making, even when negative. They need to want to know about the wishes and priorities of their constituents, and not simply hear the unwarranted cheerleading of those who can’t do otherwise. The message had to cross the cocoon that self-interested cheerleaders normally manufacture around decision makers.

But the message seems to have started reaching its intended destination. One could already sense it through the first reactions of Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, who expressed respect for the role and work of research scientists and was not dismissive of their  concerns. He then asserted that some of the cuts were simply “a moratorium for one year as we seek counsel from the scientific community.”

What has happened since? Well, first NSERC is reconsidering its elimination of the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) program, and has started a public consultation about it — though I hear that the RTI will be reinstated with a lower level of funding (around $10-M). I also understand that officials are frantically trying to relocate to the Canadian Foundation for innovation (CFI) those deserving research facilities, which were funded by NSERC’s MRS programme. Last but not least, we heard yesterday the good news that the government is seriously re-thinking the planned closure of the Experimental Lakes Area.

Some say that this is a tribute to “citizen power.” I say that this is also a tribute to a government that is willing to exercise fair-play and good judgment once it gets a chance to hear from its constituents. But there is still lots of work ahead. The kind of work that will require a sustained and concerted effort by all those willing and capable to “speak scientific truth to power.” But we need appropriate mechanisms for consultation and the right channels to do so, not just shallow pre-budget submissions, which hardly reflect the hopes and aspirations of a world class research community.

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5 Responses to R&D front: Signs that government may be starting to get it

  1. Bryan says:

    I wish I could be as “happy” as you. All I see is a knee-jerk response to some very bad press – a one year moratorium until the bad PR goes away, and then it’ll be full-stream ahead with gutting Canadian science. The sad reality is that this government doesn’t seem to understand the difference between product development and science – its moved vast sums of money away from basic research into commercialization programs which have been failing for years (I know, I’ve tried to use them). Moving money from a successful program to a failed one isn’t smart – but the kind of programs being funded is ideologically in-line with “small-c ” conservatism…while science doesn’t exactly float their boat.

    If they wanted to make real change – change that was good, and actually addresses faults in the funding system – they should have fixed the mess that is the commercialization arm of the funding programs. There is somewhere in the neighbourhood of a dozen different grants for that purpose, all with different requirements, and none of which are very good at addressing the deficiencies we Canadian researchers face when trying to commercialize products of our research. The venture-capital system in Canada is crap, unless you want to drill holes in the ground and pump out oil; how about a granting program to cover that? Or how about a granting system that doesn’t require pre-partnering with a existing company? The whole point of high-tech development is to be the first – how the hell do you find a partner, if you’re the first to discover (and attempt to commercialize) something?

    Long story short – you give a Canadian scientist a dollar, and we’ll do more with it (as measured by “real” outcomes like impact factors) than almost any other scientist in the world – you don’t tear down a system like that, you tweak it. But, should we find something commercially valuable, Canadian scientists are among the worst and brining it to market – clearly, there is a huge disjunction there.

    So why is the gov “fixing” with the former, but doing nothing about the latter?

  2. Important commentary, especially the allusion to the sources that the government is choosing to get input for its decisions and feedback about them afterwards. Fixing poor decisions after the fact is, perhaps, promising. However, the crux of the problem won’t be addressed until a proper system is restored to get a broad spectrum of input BEFORE decisions are made and policies set, input not just from Presidents and heads of Councils, but from the scientific community at the grass roots.
    I have spent the past week at a conference in the US and, while there are (arguably) worse funding issues here, I am always impressed by the channels open to the government to get input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders, not just on science policy but on how science can contribute to a whole range of issues.
    As to the comment in the reply about how Canadian scientists are so poor at bringing their results “to market”, even if you believe that this should be the ultimate goal of basic research (which I don’t), I would like to see the evidence to support this statement – we are supposed to be scientists after all. I have heard this rhetoric for years but little supporting data. In fact, at my institution we have had many successful startups, tech transfers, etc.

  3. Bryan says:

    even if you believe that this should be the ultimate goal of basic research (which I don’t)
    I agree with you – but more and more, it is being expected of us and not just at the level of the conservative governments vague handle on how science turns into $$$. In my field (medical sciences), and probably in others, is becoming a necessity – the pharma/biotech industry has largely abandoned its drug-discovery work. The new model is to let academics identify potential compounds, begin a startup to take them to trial, and if the trials are successful, the startup gets bought out (reference: PMID 22422244).

    I have heard this rhetoric for years but little supporting data. In fact, at my institution we have had many successful startups, tech transfers, etc.
    I never said there were no successes, but we are far worse at commercialization than most other western nations. Having been through the start-up ringer a few times myself, I am constantly underawed at how few opportunities there are here (I’ve been involved in three; two of which ended up being funded by US sources because no Canadian ones could be found). There is a lot of literature on this, especially in the business and R&D journals. While not a direct comparison to other nations, this article highlights venture-capital investment in Canada:

    To put that into context, our country, being 1/10th the size of the US, invested less than a billion dollars in venture capital in 2010 (of which ~$82 million were angel investments – the very thing needed to start a new company). The US in the same period – $29.1 billion., the EU 60 billion euros. Heck, even little Israel outspends the US 1.5x, per capita, spending more than Canada despite being significantly smaller.

    A more specific example, from my own area, biotech funding in the US vs Canada:

    Long government document made short, the ratio of gov:industry funding of biotech/pharma startups is much higher in Canada than elsewhere (meaning our industry isn’t pulling its weight), our companies don’t do R&D of their own – ~4X more depended on universities to drive R&D than the US. It also has good news – the same report shows that you give a Canadian scientist like you or I $1, and we’ll do more with it than scientists in pretty much any other nation on earth, as measured by non-commercial outcomes like papers and impact factos.

    IMO, one of the real signs of our lack of venture-capital for startups is Canada’s total lack of dedicated investor groups for anything other than the oil field. In the US, you’ll find groups of investors who invest just in biotech, just in computers, etc, etc, etc. In Canada, we don’t even have a group dedicated to technology, but we do have one dedicated to oil & gas.

  4. Ghoussoub says:

    Thank you Bryan and David for the thoughtful comments.
    Here are two links to two recent stories somewhat related to the post.
    — Paul Dufour, “Science for the lambs, or how a research community got its scream back”, Research Money, Volume 26 Number 12, July 31, 2012
    and from Europe,
    — Inga Vesper, “Glover advised to listen more closely to public”. http://www.researchresearch.com/index.php?option=com_news&template=rr_2col&view=article&articleId=1212120

  5. Pingback: Mathblogging.org Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

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