Overhauling NSERC is a long overdue national priority (I)

With an annual budget of $1.1 billion, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is the agency through which the federal government funds advanced post-secondary research in science and engineering. Thousands of Canadian researchers rely on it, hence expect it to operate fairly, competently, and efficiently. Unfortunately, NSERC is an organization that seems to be stuck in the past, enamored with the sanctity of its own outdated ways. Its flawed operational structure keeps being mercilessly exposed by the changing times. It never caught up to the evolving ways of funding and supporting research. It needs to change. In this post, I will identify impediments to NSERC’s ability to optimize government’s investments in support of scientific research and innovation. I shall suggest a way forward in the next blogpost.

NSERC never adapted to the internationalization of scientific research. Its rigid ways prevent it from developing and executing a nationally coordinated, coherent and inclusive vision. Its insular modus operandi hinders its potential to collaborate, leverage its federal resources, and multiply research opportunities. Its structural silos are ill-suited to cope with the ascendance of interdisciplinary research. Its management by career administrators doesn’t allow it to knowledgeably and confidently address emerging areas of research. Its outdated mandate impedes its capacity to carry out government’s recent effort to promote gender inclusive and diverse policies.

The main problem? NSERC is essentially run and managed by career administrators with minimal input from rank-and-file researchers. And in the absence of input from external expertise, rigid bureaucracies cannot adapt to rapidly changing landscapes and accelerating trends. For the current NSERC, researchers are not the qualified partners in the business of managing competently the granting process. Rather, they are merely self-interested clients that need to be themselves managed. NSERC’s folks speak of consultation processes with the various scientific communities. In reality, these exercises seem like -can do without- necessary rituals, where the information needs to be tightly controlled and censored as opposed to freely exchanged. Scientists are strictly used for peer review on select programs, though always under an omnipresent ambience of “policing.” Even the days where researchers used to calibrate their funding decisions with the science they evaluate, are gone –courtesy of “the binning system” of Suzanne Fortier.

I will now describe a few concrete examples of NSERC’s handicaps, of what could be done, and of what has been done –on an ad-hoc basis– by other Canadian research organizations in order to fill the operational gap that NSERC has been leaving behind. These illustrations are of course influenced by what I know, and by the disciplines I am familiar with. This said, it also happens that Canada’s mathematical Sciences institutes seem to be doing exactly what I think is normally expected from NSERC. They are succeeding where the council is failing. My premise is that these ad-hoc efforts can be expanded, extrapolated, scaled, and institutionalized. They could serve as a blueprint for a new operational model for NSERC.

Leveraging of Funds: Canadian Science is lagging in provincial and international partnerships as NSERC has no viable mechanism to leverage its federal funds. To illustrate such opportunities, let’s mention that the Math/Stats envelope at NSERC is about $22.6-million per year, including the $4.3-million that go to three mathematical science institutes (Fields in Toronto, CRM in Montreal, PIMS in the West) as well as BIRS. These four institutions happen to leverage their NSERC grant more than 3-fold from provincial, international, university, and private funding. In other words, they add almost $12-million dollars to the math/stats pot, all in support of Canadian research. A significant proportion of leveraged funds come from a variety of external (i.e., international) sources including the NSF, CONACyT, and the Simons Foundation. This effort should be emulated, encouraged, and facilitated by NSERC. A restructuring at NSERC is needed for it to help generate a multiplier effect on federal investments in research.

International partnerships are becoming the norm worldwide, yet NSERC has no mechanism to help Canadian scientists in their quest to join that effort. The Banff International Research Station (BIRS) may be the only continuing joint NSERC-NSF-CONACyT-Alberta Innovation project. Ironically, BIRS exists because of an exceptional bold action by NSERC –more specifically by its then-president, Tom Brzustowski. That act was an exception for NSERC. It should become the rule.

Other examples of beneficial partnerships were developed around the country without NSERC. Both the CRM and PIMS have secured a status of “Unite Mixte Internationale” (UMI) of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). As a result, dozens of French researchers spend extended periods of time in Canadian universities collaborating with their peers while being fully paid by the French government. Ditto for Germany’s Max Planck institute partnership with the institute for quantum materials at UBC. Thanks to CONACyT and Casa Matematica Oaxaca, BIRS increased the delivery of its programs by 50%. A restructuring at NSERC would allow it to sponsor and spearhead even more consequential win-win opportunities for Canada.

An inclusive and coherent Pan-Canadian vision: It is imperative to address the imbalance in geographic demographics. Jim Woodgett noted that, “competition for science funding isn’t always a level playing field. Larger scientific centres have inherent advantages leading to geographical distortions. Rather than handicap the successful, we must ensure support of disadvantaged centres through regional partnerships to sustain capacity and expertise“. The institutes have been trying for years to support the mathematical sciences in Atlantic Canada through AARMS. This effort should have been an NSERC responsibility all along. It hasn’t. A restructuring at NSERC would allow it to take up its national role, responsibly and coherently.

Identifying and building high priority research infrastructure: CRM, Fields and PIMS, have launched, jointly and individually, highly successful national initiatives, including Mitacs, BIRS, and AARMS. Together, they have identified, five years ago, the importance of jumpstarting and funding the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute (CANSSI), a national network that seeds research collaborations among statistical scientists and scientists in data-intensive fields. This national priority should have been high on NSERC’s agenda. It hasn’t. A restructuring at NSERC would help it assume its responsibilities in identifying, coordinating and funding high priority national initiatives.

Efficient and rigorous ways to fund cross-disciplinary research: Having several separate councils may have perpetuated the difficulty of doing so, and the creation of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) may alleviate the challenge. But this can only be done by empowering leading scientists to identify legitimate and useful cross-disciplinary research, coordinate between disciplines, and make informed and confident decisions. We note that even though they have been funded by the Math/Stats envelope, the institutes and BIRS have shouldered a myriad of interdisciplinary activities. It suffices to take a look at their programmes. NSERC’s leadership has yet to acknowledge and support such a remarkable effort. Its processes do not allow it to do so. A restructuring at NSERC will make it recognize, support, and coordinate strategically important cross-disciplinary interactions.

Incubating new and emerging areas of research: Data Science and Artificial Intelligence have recently attracted the attention of government, and consequently received a substantial amount of funding. But this begs the question: what was NSERC’s role in incubating these strategically important directions of research? It is fair to say that the institutes, BIRS, and Mitacs have played important roles in vigorously supporting these areas of research over the past 20 years. J. Bengio was funded by Mitacs and Mprime throughout the network’s 16 years existence. Mathematical Biology is another important area, which is neither funded by CIHR, nor recognized as such by NSERC’s rigid structures. An informed NSERC, where scientists are empowered, will recognize and support emerging areas of research of strategic importance to the country. 

The path for Canada to achieve substantial advances in science and engineering research, through a vastly improved and optimized NSERC, will be described in part II …

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