Monday, April 1, 2013

CAUT President on Basic Research

Time to question federal funding priorities

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By Wayne Peters

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program will fund 11 new chairs at eight Canadian universities at a cost of about $55 million over five years. The November 2012 announcement comes on the heels of the program’s first competition in 2010 that saw 18 chairs at 13 institutions funded at a cost of about $190 million over seven years. The program is preparing to launch a third round of awards in 2015.

With almost $250 million now committed to 29 individuals at only 21 institutions across the country, this is a significant concentration of resources to a very small group of researchers, especially when their research is expected to align with just four areas of strate­gic importance to Canada, as defined by the federal government.

A rough calculation shows that more than a million dollars is committed annually to each chair. By comparison, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Discovery Grant funding for basic research currently supports about 10,000 ongoing projects across a broad range of interests. In the 2012 Discovery Grant competition, 2,161 researchers were funded at an average grant level of about $31,000.

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program was instituted to attract leading-edge research and world-class researchers to Canada. It is part of a recent, bigger push by the federal government to bridge the so-called innovation gap in this country by investing in innovation and research capacity in certain priority areas: environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communication technologies.

The 2012 federal budget purportedly committed $1.6 billion through its Economic Action Plan to a more effective promotion of innovation, although it is unclear just how much of this represents new money. Much of the money is targeted at creating value-added jobs consistent with the government’s new approach to supporting innovation that focuses resources on private sector needs.

This approach is driven in part by statistics such as the Global Innovation Index — co-published by the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, and business school INSEAD — which ranked Canada 74th out of 141 countries in innovation efficiency in 2012. Innovation efficiency is a country’s ability to convert its commitment to innovation inputs such as investments in education, people and infrastructure (Canada ranked 10th on this measure) into innovation outputs such as new products, employment and patents (Canada ranked 20th on this one).

Rankings such as these suggest Canada is just not very good at capitalizing on the outcomes of its existing research and development infrastructure. This is the view, at least, of the Independent Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development, appointed by the Minister of State for Science and Technology following the 2010 federal budget. It released its report, “Innovation Canada: A Call to Action,” in late 2011.

The panel’s key recommendation is the creation of a national Industrial Research and Innovation Council with a clear mandate for “business” innovation, not simply innovation. The distinction here is an important one as it implies much more prominence will be given to the private sector as the primary innovator. And, it seems clear, in this context, that innovation is really commercialization. Consistent with this, the panel advocates for a policy shift in supporting the private sector — away from indirect funding (usually as tax credits) to a more direct approach through grants, and easier access to venture capital and government procurement. Further, it recommends this be done in a more targeted way.

This is a significant shift away from basic research to more targeted research with anticipated commercial value. In this model, federal investments will support a narrow, short-term commercialization strategy that links research outcomes directly to business interests, while largely neglecting basic academic research at our institutions.

In the 2012 federal budget no additional funds were provided to the three granting councils that support the basic research of thousands of academics in Canada. In fact, over the last five funding years, base funding to the three granting councils dropped by almost $90 million at a time when significantly more money was being allocated to a select group of research “stars.”

Additionally, vital programs such as NSERC’s Major Resources Support grants and the Research Tools and Instruments grants have been eliminated. Dedicated research facilities have been closed as a result of underfunding, including the Experimental Lakes Area project — a unique and internationally-acclaimed freshwater laboratory in northwest Ontario — and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, Canada’s northernmost research station that tracked ozone depletion, air quality and climate change.

The money allocated to just one Canada Excellence Research Chair could have maintained such research efforts and many others like them.

Two things are at issue here. First, the federal government’s focus on commercialization diverts support away from basic science research in this country and targets it for the private sector. This strategy overlooks the reality that research, development and innovation are intertwined enterprises that exist along a continuum of activity. Basic research provides the building blocks on which everything else depends. Shifting resources away from it undermines the whole scientific and innovation agenda.

Second, the funding that does remain for basic research in this country is increasingly being concentrated into support for fewer individuals and for research in specific areas of strategic relevance to the government, as demonstrated by the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. This leaves thousands of Canadian researchers starving for support and struggling to build and maintain their research programs. Sadly, it also means that many great ideas will never see the light of day due to a lack of funding or simply because they fall outside the government’s targeted research areas.

Is this good policy for funding Canada’s research? I think not.