The puck stops where?

“NSERC makes decisions on how to best utilize the resources allocated to them by the government.” That was Gary Goodyear, the federal minister responsible for science and technology. He was not responding to our post of last week in which we ask for accountability regarding the decision to gut the postdoctoral opportunities for young Canadian scholars. He was pretty close though, as he was responding to a very related matter: a report released yesterday by the federal New Democrats, which addresses the termination of two other NSERC programs, that traditionally support university sponsored research: the Major Resources Support (MRS) and the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) programs. The President of the University of Toronto doesn’t seem to agree with the minister.

Under the heading “Govern and spend better”, David Naylor notes that “successive federal and provincial governments have created a wide variety of agencies to promote industrial development and innovation. Unfortunately oversight of these entities is uneven. Indeed, even as governments meddle in or even cut funding for excellence driven research agencies, they grant considerable autonomy to a myriad of bodies that spend money in puzzling ways.”

Obviously bewildered by the myriad of government boutiques for industrial R&D that he got to analyse during his stint on the Jenkins panel, David Naylor doesn’t seem to be impressed by the meddling (and the budget cutting) that various governments seem to reserve for excellence driven research agencies, aka NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR.

So where does the puck really stop in matters regarding Canada’s R&D strategy, and what is Canada’s research community to do with this state of affairs?

Let’s summarize the situation while focusing on Canada’s main outlet for the promotion of research in science and engineering, NSERC.

We have a government which seems to be dissociating itself from a whole slew of recent controversial decisions on Canadian research funding, including the demise by attrition of the Discovery Grant programme, the termination of the RTI and the MRS, and most recently  the demoralizing frontal attack on our young scholars, by denying them increasingly essential postdoctoral opportunities.

We have members of NSERC’s Council convinced that they have no real say in such decisions because as currently structured, Council is just an “advisory body”. This apparently means that their role consist of waiting to be advised on policy and programming matters by standing committees that are responsible for overseeing, where appropriate, the work of selection committees and panels.” This –sort of– confirms the “particular problem of pseudo-governance” that Naylor also points at, such as — “the appointment of “boards” that have an uncertain mandate, along with members who lack serious and relevant director-level experience.”

We have university administrators lamenting that Ottawa rarely listens to them anyway — regardless of how many “bouquets” they send to the decision makers in our national capital. Some people point to the latest “national advocacy day” of the AUCC in Ottawa, which had the misfortune on landing next door to the one for “Canadian dairy producers”. Guess where the politicians went.

We have a Royal Society, which is so marginalized from the business of setting national science policy standards that one wonders whether its only raison-d’etre is now confined to  organizing the annual induction ceremony for its new members.

So where does the puck really stop? At Suzanne Fortier’s desk?

There is no doubt that NSERC’s current president bears a big responsibility for these unprecedented changes to the lanscape of government support to university sponsored research and innovation.  But it is hard to believe that she is solely responsible for this demolition derby.  Is she really doing it single-handedly? And if so, is it possible that there is no one in Canada’s establishment capable and willing to counter these actions, voice concerns and make the case — at least for the future of hundreds of young Canadian scientists?

Let’s face it. University presidents weren’t always shy about affecting, or attempting to affect, Ottawa’s research policies. We all remember who won the epic battle regarding the “indirect cost for research” between university presidents led by Martha Piper and the Presidents of the Tri-council aided by a few bureaucrats at Industry Canada. Of course, cash for “indirect costs” is a prized discretionary fund, which may be more worthy of fighting for than postdoc opportunities. But academic leaders are dead wrong to underestimate the sentiments out there regarding the low profile they are keeping on such important issues affecting the future of the academy. The postdoc issue seems to be particularly toxic as many colleagues across the country are now writing to say that they are prepared to knock on presidential doors and organize sit-ins to explain it to them.

I don’t buy the excuses of NSERC’s council members either. For one, it is written that “the Council’s main responsibilities are to set the strategy and high level policies for NSERC, and to review and evaluate performance. The Council works to achieve the maximum strategic impact for Canada from the expenditure of public funds, and to advance Canada’s research and development agenda.”

Tempering, let alone derailing, the agenda of a determined Executive, who is providing “all the evidence”, is not often easy for Board members. It requires a considerable personal  investment in time and effort to study files, and conduct one’s own research and analysis on policies, their history and their potential impact. It is the most effective way to counter what is thrown at you by the bureaucracy.   It is an unfair fight, but at the end of the day, everyone is accountable.

Most mystifying is the fact that Government is deferring responsibility. Whether this is true or not may not really matter. They may well be breaking it, Mr. Goodyear,  but you will surely own it.

More on this in future posts.

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6 Responses to The puck stops where?

  1. Steven Siciliano says:

    If we are really going to convince our presidents to go to Ottawa with this, I think that we need to make a strong case that NSERC PDF funding is essential. I have many reasons to think that it is essential but I’m afraid none of them are economically defensible. For example:

    1. NSERC PDFs provide aspiring, excellent young researchers with the opportunity to pursue high-risk, interdisciplinary research that only they are in the position to see. They are in this unique position because they are on the cutting edge, have just emerged from the highly collaborative graduate school experience. Thus, providing funding directly to them allows these individuals to pursue novel ideas.

    1a) Contra-argument. The CREATE program specifically targets interdisciplinarity and provides PDFs with the institutional framework they need to succeed.

    2. NSERC PDFs support our excellent researchers and insures a constant supply of excellent HQP for University research.

    2a) Contra-argument. There is a consistent demonstration that the supply for new professorial candidates is too high, leading to stagnation in the PDF system. By reducing this supply, we will send economic signals that most PhD candidates should focus on industrial opportunities. We have increased our industrial PDF program to send such signals.

    3. NSERC PDFs provide an unique opportunity to pursue curiosity driven research and helps support existing Discovery programs.

    3a) Contra-agrument. We don’t care about curiosity research. Our policy drivers are innovation leading to technology and HQP training to support our innovative Canadian companies.

    So as much as I support NSERC PDFs… if I had to make hard choices about where NSERC money goes…. it would be a tough sell. For the record… I would put most of my money into the CGS, PDF and Discovery system because this where we really invent new stuff that no one has ever really thought about. And the more we empower students in a transparent fashion, the more fair our academy would become. At the end of the day, interdisciplinary arises from the bottom as researchers pursue their obsession.

    Before we go to our presidents with this issue, I think we need to fashion a policy based argument that NSERC PDF funding is essential. Currently, nothing but my gut tells me that it is.

    • casteels1 says:

      A few thoughts…

      First, I agree with Nassif. This is so little money in the grand scheme of things (even in the NSERC scheme of things) that it’s almost ridiculous this is an issue at all. Indeed the PDF budget for this coming year is only going to be about 1% of NSERC’s budget! (And that’s an actually a bit of an overestimate.)

      1b) Contra-contra-argument. While the CREATE programs may be nice for grad students, it seems to me to have some fundamental flaws when it comes to post-docs. I don’t really want to ramble about it too much again, but my main point is that if one were to start their PhD today, they will only have knowledge of 1 or 2 out of 6 years worth of the CREATEs that will be available when they graduate. Therefore, most newly minted PhDs will be extremely lucky to have a CREATE program available that is appropriate to their knowledge base.

      2b) Contra-contra-argument. I don’t think there’s any doubt that there are more PhD’s being produced each year than there are new academic jobs, but it doesn’t follow that were too many NSERC PDFs being funded every year! Indeed, check out Table 48 here: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/FactsFigures-TableauxDetailles/2010-2011Tables_e.pdf . The “All fields” column indicates that job growth in fields supported by NSERC last decade was, in many years, over a 1000 new jobs, and at least 500. And that doesn’t count hires to replace retirees! I realize hiring has likely slowed down a lot since 2008, but…to less than a 100/year, including retirements and other movement?

      3b) Yeah, sadly. I don’t really understand the point of focusing on the training of ever more “HQP” while at the same time bemoaning the lack of R&D/”innovation” that Canadian companies perform. The problem isn’t a lack of talented scientists in Canada, it’s the lack of talented CEOs.

      • casteels1 says:

        2c) Contra-contra-contra argument: Oh I think I may have misread that table. I think the “All Fields” is total faculty across, ermmm…. all fields, i.e., including humanities etc. I was thrown by the footnote; I guess they should have written something like: “…are reported *as a subset* of the ‘all fields.’ ”

        So the “Total NSE” column is what one should look at (at least as a lower bound, since some growth is included in the first column). This does lend more support to the 2a contra-argument, although again, that doesn’t include hires to replace retiring faculty. I wonder what the actual number of new hires is?

        2d) Contra^4 argument: I wonder if the “right” way to think of a PDF is really as a means to an end of getting a tenure track position. Of course, most people doing a PDF feel this way, but I don’t think this should necessarily be NSERC’s viewpoint. Remember, these people are talented, motivated and energetic. The research carried out during a post-doc will probably be much more cutting-edge, high-quality and “innovative” than whatever else they would end up doing.

        Has anyone ever surveyed the post-PDF (and post-PhD) community to see typical outcomes? I think such an analysis would be the key to figuring out the best policy.

  2. Ghoussoub says:

    Yes, I am familiar with these counter-arguments and I am preparing to address them in an upcoming post. The 1100+ postdoc applicants who didn’t make it this year are also welcome to chip in with their own arguments on why they should have been given a chance.

    I find your focus on the “economically defensible” arguments a bit limited: Are you comparing the cost of supporting postdocs to the cost of the “engage program”, or to the cost of purchasing spare tires for the F35s among other government priorities?

    In any case, the gist of my posts so far on this issue is that such important science policy decisions should not be made on the basis of what your gut tells you nor of anyone else’s. And that one else’s is still unknown as far as we are concerned. Consultation and serious analysis should come first. We cannot slash and burn, then decide to consult afterwards and only because a few have spoken out loud enough for the rest of us (as in the case of the RTI).

    Finally, do talk to your president. You may be surprised by how close his “gut feeling” is to yours. In some circles, it is called a basic “awareness” of the role of the academy in the future of the country.

  3. Xavier says:

    Dear casteels1,
    Here is a report about post-PhD in Canada. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-595-m/81-595-m2011089-eng.pdf

    It is not really long term, but a good snapshot.

  4. Pingback: Declarations & Challenges — Calls for Public Advocacy from University Presidents | Arts Squared

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