Reboot NSERC by engaging and empowering the researchers it serves

I described in a previous post some of the impediments to NSERC’s ability to optimize government’s investments in support of scientific research and innovation. Namely, how its rigid and insular operational structure hinders its capabilities to partner internationally; to coordinate nationally; to operate coherently and inclusively; to collaborate, leverage its federal resources, and multiply research opportunities; to adapt to the ascendance of interdisciplinary research, and to knowledgeably and confidently address emerging areas of research. To metamorphose NSERC from its current state of a reactive and unimaginative funnel of government money, to a pro-active and nimble organization that can multiply it and optimize its use, there is one simple solution.

Engage, involve and empower active scientific researchers in the running of the organization. It can be done with a minimal amount of disruptions, as long as it is done soon so as to capitalize on the injection of new funds into its base funding by the Trudeau government ($45-million in 2018 and $15-million in each of the following three years). We give an outline of an operational plan, that does not disrupt existing core programs, yet provides a credible mechanism to add flexibility and innovative thinking via the co-opting of competent scientific leaders who will help NSERC identify, collaborate, leverage, facilitate, incubate, and enforce.

Here is a sketch.

  • Refocus NSERC and much of its budget on an expanded and restructured version of the 12 Evaluation Groups (EGs), which currently constitute its Discovery Grant Program. Call them “Divisions” if you will, to illustrate their expanded and reasonably autonomous role on behalf of each of the communities they represent. They currently are:

1501, Genes, Cells, Molecules
1502, Biological Systems & Functions
1503, Evolution/Ecology.
1504, Chemistry.
1505, Physics.
1506, Geosciences.
1507, Computer Science
1508, Math/Stats
1509, Civil, Industrial &Systems Engineering
1510, Electrical and Computer Engineering.

  • The budget of each division could consist of:
    • (A) Current EG funds, i.e., those assigned to the DG competitions.
    • (B) Other EG funds not directed to individual discovery grants, such as the Math/Stats institutes, CITA, Subatomic physics envelope, etc.
    • (C) New funds to be added to each division from the 2018-21 budget increases.
    • (D) Funds from the RPP programs which are currently under review.
  • Each division would be led by a prominent researcher seconded to NSERC for a maximal non-renewable period of 3 years. The Division director can be supported by his/her supporting program directors and staff, including the chairs who oversee the annual DG competitions.

The responsibilities of the Division Director will include:

  • Carrying out and enforcing the government’s directives to promote gender inclusive and diverse policies within the division.
  • Allocating funds from (A) for the annual DG competition. At present, this exercise is totally controlled by staff, with minimal input from EG expert panelists. Here is a current sample of an unfair and irrational “bin-to-funding map,” performed by staff:

Bin.values

  • Working with other division directors to identify and jointly fund interdisciplinary DG projects.
  • Using funds from (B) and (C) above to:
    • introduce and apply a coherent and inclusive national vision that takes in consideration regional disparities.
    • encourage collaborations -including with other councils- and multiply research opportunities.
    • exploit the funds available to the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) by generating strategic collaborative research projects.
    • leverage NSERC resources with those from provincial governments and the private sector.
    • encourage, facilitate and fund international partnerships in collaborative projects -preferably- located on Canadian soil.
    • identify strategically important emerging areas of research and find optimal ways to fund them.
  • Using funds from (D) to initiate, incubate, and support research partnerships with industry.
  • “Competing” for funds from a central envelope (E) in a recurring re-allocation exercise between divisions. The autonomous structure of the divisions makes the exercise intellectually feasible and sound.
  • Competing or/and collaborating with other division directors for funds from a central envelope (E) to identify and support special research initiatives, deemed of strategic importance.
  • Generating the strategic thinking behind NSERC’s annual submissions to the federal budget.
  • Contributing, through regular visits to Parliament hill, to the important task of informing government and all elected officials, the scientific and socio-economic impact of their investment in NSERC.

Yes, the model may resemble the structure adopted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), or even the institutes at CIHR, but this looks like the most optimal way to involve competent and committed leadership, while generating flexibility and fresh thinking.

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