“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.