NSERC president explains recent program decisions and agency’s evolution

We are grateful to “RE$EARCH MONEY” for granting “Piece of Mind” the permission to post the following exclusive interview they have recently conducted with the President of NSERC, Suzanne Fortier. The original article is accessible to “RE$EARCH MONEY” subscribers on the website:  www.researchmoneyinc.com

RE$EARCH MONEY Exclusive

NSERC president explains recent program decisions and agency’s evolution

In recent months, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has been the focus of criticism for the ways in which it has responded to its role in the federal government’s deficit elimination strategy. RE$EARCH MONEY sat down with NSERC president Dr Suzanne Fortier to discuss how the research community reacted to changes in the agency’s programming and the evolving research landscape. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

R$: As NSERC evolves, there has been some frustration and criticism from the academic community dependent upon NSERC funding. Earlier this year, nearly 50 scientists signed a letter of concern addressed to you and others regarding the MRS (Major Resources Support) program and the RTI (Research Tools and Instruments) program funding. And just last month, there was a report released quantifying the impact of putting a moratorium on MRS funding. As president of NSERC, how do you react to this level of criticism which seems to be unprecedented in recent years?

SF: First of all it is true that NSERC is evolving and that may not be apparent to the whole community as it is to those who are working in this area, that it is evolving at the international level in a global environment. It’s not evolving in a vacuum. That means it’s exciting, you can connect with many countries in the world and the bar for excellence has risen. This is the reality. It’s a reality that as Canadians we have to commit to a higher level.

The recent frustrations were over some programs that, because of Budget 2012, had to be put in a moratorium or changed significantly. (This was driven by the government’s) commitment to return to a balanced budget; a commitment for every agency and department in Ottawa to examine everything we do and look at all of our programs to rank them in terms of priority, to assess them in terms of efficiency and relevance to our mandate.

The community had little idea of what was going on, that we had to go through this exercise of looking at everything that we do and ranking it. But we keep our ears open and we have heard from our community that the number one program they want us to protect is the Discovery Grants.

R$: Didn’t the Budget also include wording (to that effect?

SF: Yes exactly, and this is not accidental. It is because people here understand the importance of the Discovery Grants program. Similarly we made a very strong case to protect the scholarships for our students. We’re looking to the future, the next generation. We wanted to protect that at every cost.

(Another priority is) innovation. We have a fairly good portfolio here of programs to link the academic sector to the industrial sector. We need to do better on innovation in this country so again this is a pretty high priority. When you come right down to it, that is what is difficult for an organization like NSERC. There’s nothing we do that is not of value (for) all members of our community. We do evaluate our programs on a regular basis. The programs that were less effective or needed to be changed have undergone these processes. At the end of the day, there is very little that is not of value.

Nevertheless, we are part of a deficit reduction action plan and we have to identify the highest priorities and lower priorities and we did our job like everybody in Ottawa. So we were happy on Budget day because these were actively protected. We were also happy that, while there were some impacts, they were not very large and all of the money that was part of our reduction was re-invested entirely into our budget. We haven’t lost money. But I don’t think the community understands that. Since the big cuts of 1993, we haven’t seen any cuts at NSERC in our total budget.

R$: But it’s flatlining and if you take inflation into account…

SF: Absolutely. In many countries they’ve actually seen reductions. Germany is probably the exception and of course the emerging countries with high GDP growth. Some are lowering now but there have been big increases in China, Brazil and so on.

R$: But the community is getting larger.

SF: It grew for a while but now it’s starting to slow down and we’re seeing fewer people coming in as first-time applicants in our Discovery Grants program than we did before.

I’ll tell you a little about RTI because that’s a fascinating example in some ways. There are about 12 programs at NSERC where you can get money for small equipment. RTI is one of many. But people like RTI — they like to go to that particular program to get money. It’s a unique program as you probably know. Once we knew the outcome of the budget, we quickly put together information about other programs and also paid particular attention to those who may not have easy access to these other programs. But a lot of those programs are in our partnership suite of programs. We are now consulting with the universities and the research community on how to put in place a smaller version of the RTI — one that can be there for those who will not have other routes for funding.

R$: What about MRS? Is there discussion ongoing?

SF: The MRS is a very different story. We are a minor player. The average support we give is 15% so we’re not the only game in town. If there is one thing I wish we could do, it is to get to a far more efficient way to support our large facilities in Canada than we do now. Many facilities have up to seven or eight places to go and some, just at the federal level, will go six routes to get funding. We could gain by being more efficient there.

R$: How do you respond the findings of the NDP report on the MRS program (R$, August 31/12)? The report claims that it’s going to strand about $80 million worth of infrastructure.

SF: As I say, our average contribution is 15% so obviously we’re not a major player. Now I have to say that every penny that we provide in support is greatly appreciated by the community. We are in many of those facilities (but) the bulk of their money comes from somewhere else. There are a few where we are a significant player but not many.

R$: You say we need a more efficient way of supporting facilities and I’ve heard you say in the past that MRS is somewhat uncomfortably situated at NSERC. Is there a large discussion going on in the community?

 SF: Yes, there’s a larger discussion because in most countries, here we’re talking about large research infrastructure. Best practice is that you look at this in an integrated fashion. So if you acquire or build a new facility that’s when you have to ask yourself, how will we operate it, how will we maintain it, how will we upgrade it and how will we decommission it? You buy a car and before you decide, you look at your budget and know that you’ll have maintenance and insurance and you’ll have gasoline to pay and that has to fit together. If you put all your money into the car you have nothing else and you’re not going to be travelling very far. This is the kind of model that we need and increasingly we’re working towards this model, but we’re not there yet.

R$: How would you describe the direction that NSERC is currently moving towards?

SF: When I first came (to NSERC) we had discussions with the community and NSERC council internally about our direction. We have this discussion every year … We are about three things. The (first is the) talent part, which is hugely important in Canada because of the need we will have in our workforce. In the natural sciences and engineering, we know we do not have enough graduates. Major projects we might have in mind for our country cannot be realized if we don’t attract those people.

For us the talent part is a major preoccupation. We haven’t made a lot of progress in attracting women. I’ll give you two numbers … 51% of our budget is spent on student stipends, that’s direct and indirect support. In terms of direct support we’re spending $150 million a year or about 15%. It’s far more than agencies that I know. I meet with my colleagues internationally and almost no one puts that much money into scholarships.

The second thing we’ve done … if you’re at the top of your game it doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been in the system, you get the same grant as a senior person. We adopted the principle — within the given discipline — of equal scientific merit, you get an equal grant. Of anything we’ve done that’s what really shook the system. With Discovery, I hear a lot of people sometimes unhappy. I feel for them. As a researcher there’s nothing worse than losing your grant. We have made a commitment to supporting a strong and broad base and strong means strong. If you’re a senior researcher and you don’t come out with a strong evaluation at the end of the process, you’re not going to get funded. But if you are strong and outstanding, you will get funded. People think we’re moving to a star system — not at all. In the competition last year, 78% of the people who came in with a grant got a grant. Nowhere in the world will you find that and we’re proud of it.

Since we made the change, there are 500 fewer people (grant recipients). It went from 10,300 to 9,800 (so) any notion that we want to fund the crème de la crème, the superstars, that is not true at all and the numbers are very clear. However, the average grant per person is too small. If I have a grant that is $40,000 and I need a piece of equipment that costs $20,000, where am I going to find the money to support my graduate students? We are going to have a way for people who are in this situation.

 “There are still myths out there where people think, if you work with industry, you’re doing incremental, near-term type research. That is not at all what we see. Many of the projects, particularly with the larger firms, are more the mid- to long-term and they’re looking at the future of their industry, not what’s happening now.” — Dr Suzanne Fortier

The third part is the innovation piece. We’ve made lots of effort there to connect. It’s all about connections, creating the partnerships. It’s not about changing academic researchers to become entrepreneurs and CEOs of spin-offs. It’s about making sure knowledge and expertise are exchanged both ways. I call them the zones of interaction — dynamic, efficient, high-powered zones of interaction where people connect with one another.

R$: You have a difficult balancing act between discovery-based research and the strategic, collaborative research. When you’re going through the process of trying to satisfy the demand of those two relatively distinct communities, how difficult is that?

SF: It is certainly difficult, particularly because of the history. When we had the value-for-money review, the challenge for us was to validate the Discovery Grant program and the approach we had taken. It was at this period where it was very difficult for me to get any money for the program. That’s normal. A review is not a good time to go ask for more money.

That happened in 2006 and 2007 was when the Science and Technology Strategy was launched. This is when we got big increases. In 2008 we did a review of the changes to the Discovery Grants program and we started seeing additional money for it in Budget 2010 and 2011. When we finished all of that, we fell right into the economic crisis and periods of very small increases. This year Discovery Grants were totally protected in a period of deficit reduction.

So how difficult? We look and compare with others internationally to make sure. It’s all a matter of balance. Certainly what I’m seeing is agencies are consistently choosing innovation as part of their mandate. We have about 40% for that part of our budget, a pretty good balance. Collaboration covers a very wide spectrum of research from fundamental to applied, near-term incremental.

There are still myths out there where people think, if you work with industry, you’re doing incremental, near-term type research. That is not at all what we see. Many of the projects, particularly with the larger firms, are more the mid- to long-term and they’re looking at the future of their industry, not what’s happening now.

R$: In the last Budget there was a $15-million reduction and then $15 million put back into targeted areas.

SF: It was put into our partnerships program.

R$: This coming year there is another $15 million reduction on the books and the government may or may not provide (make-up) funding. Are you making contingency plans at this point in the event that replacement funding is not forthcoming?

SF: That was part of the deficit reduction action plan. We had to submit a plan for 5% and 10%. Decisions have been made already for two years. The unknown for us is whether there are investments. That we don’t know. The rest has all been decided. You’ve already seen that with RTI, MRS and the Networks of Centres of Excellence. In the case of the NCE, it’s fewer networks that will be funded in the future. We would have planned to launch, say, four new networks but we won’t be able to do that. We will only be able to have two more. These are future investments that we will not be making.

 As difficult as it may be — and it’s not like we find this pleasant and we like it — you have to ask yourself the question. Will it hurt research careers? No it won’t. It may slow them down a little bit. Having fewer NCEs is not going to cut the capacity.

 R$

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One Response to NSERC president explains recent program decisions and agency’s evolution

  1. Steven Siciliano says:

    Thanks for re-printing this. Don’t suppose you could convince the Dr. Fortier to conduct an interview with you? It would be much nicer if she spent a bit more time communicating with the academic community. I recently heard that the role of a leader was to communicate a vision, repeatedly, in as many different forums as possible. Having Dr. Fortier interview across the academic community would certainly help the community understand the rationale behind the decisions.

    As someone who is preparing a NCE application, I wonder what she means by ‘having fewer NCEs is not going to cut the capacity’?

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