Finding a better way for science

Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

In 2007, the new Conservative government announced its policy with respect to the future of science and technology in Canada via a 110-page document entitled "Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage."

While proclaiming that "Canada has a long and proud history of research excellence and scientific success," the policy document cites "very real economic and environmental challenges" which demand a "new strategy ... that takes advantage of the research capacity that we have built, and more effectively uses science and technology to develop practical applications to address our challenges."

Changing direction

The broad objectives of the policy are fairly clear.

They are: by various means to focus scientific research activity and the engagement of the private sector on a set of practical goals which are deemed to provide the greatest benefit to the nation, by more stringent accountability practices, to concentrate the financial support for these activities towards selected participants who are deemed to be most capable and productive, and to expand the complement of such researchers by encouraging greater student involvement and by attracting more foreign participation.

Implementation of this policy has produced three new funding agencies at the federal level, namely: the business-led national centres of excellence, the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research and the Industrial Research and Development Internships. A new entity called the Industrial Research and Innovation Council has also been recommended and will no doubt soon be created.

The role of the National Research Council is being recast to accommodate the new emphasis on business and commercialization, and the roles of the traditional granting agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) have similarly evolved.

In all, particularly by way of the budgets from 2009 onward, the result has been several billion dollars of expenditure over approximately 100 agencies, programs and incentives of this kind.

Changes in the approaches to research support at the provincial and institutional levels have also taken place with associated burgeoning levels of administrative overhead.

Locally targeted areas of research priority have been established which are not necessarily consistent with those of the federal policy and introduce yet another level of complication. Collaborative projects are now effectively demanded at all levels and the requirement to seek support from multiple sources has become the norm.

In particular, it is all but essential that one of these sources should be in the private sector - with the clear implication that the proposed research must be oriented towards short-term practical outcomes and commercialization.

Clear conflict

The result is an obvious conflict, because practical outcomes are not the natural result of scientific investigation when the time frame is measured in a few years as opposed to several decades, and scientists are not generally disposed to thinking in these terms.

While some fraction of the nation's scientists might be induced to realign their objectives accordingly, it is likely that the majority will either be unwilling or unable to comply.

It has become fairly clear that the nature of their response will largely determine their fate and the research activities of many are being lost to the system due to cutbacks or outright termination of support.

The policy document leaves no doubt that one of its most important priorities is the achievement of excellence in scientific research. It provides no indication of what the word "excellence" might mean in this context, but it is self-evident that such activity can only be performed by a minority of excellent researchers.

Problems arise

So the obvious question arises: is it the intent of the policy to eliminate or substantially disenfranchise the majority of researchers by concentrating the available funding on the top few per cent?

If we accept at face value that NSERC's stated objective is "to make sure that only excellent research will be funded," or if we likewise accept policy statements such as "simply being good is not good enough," then an affirmative answer is unavoidable.

The negative consequences of this extremist approach were apparently not recognized.

It is the competent majority of researchers who, given at least minimal financial support to maintain their research effort, provide the mentoring and supervision of the majority of aspiring young scientists at all levels from early undergraduate through to the PhD degree.

This is an activity that is, or should be, distributed widely across the nation and is responsible for providing a substantial fraction of the future's (excellent) researchers. If it is severely curtailed then the responsibility to compensate will fall to the minority of (excellent) researchers who no doubt will be distributed much less widely across the nation. It will be a calling to which they cannot effectively respond because of personal limitations on time and energy, or which they will simply reject because it is not what they see as their primary function.

The privileged few remaining (excellent) researchers may choose to compensate by hiring surrogate mentors for their increased numbers of students.

This, of course, begs the question: where will the surrogates come from when the nation's primary supply of such individuals has been eliminated? We could look beyond our nation's borders for the solution, but this should never be considered an option when our own youth are being denied the opportunity.

A naïve and uncompromising approach to the pursuit of excellence, together with an exaggerated emphasis on commercialization, has placed the majority of our university scientists at a distinct disadvantage with respect to competition for research support.

There are no doubt many in academia (including this writer) who can point to distressing evidence around them which indicates a reduction in the nation-wide distribution of research activity and an associated curtailment of opportunity for students who aspire to a research career in the sciences.

In addition, there is no evidence of progress towards an increased engagement of the private sector in its independent funding of research, notwithstanding the subsequent assessments of multiple expert panels and reports, the expenditure of billions of dollars and the creation of a complex web of programs and bureaucratic agencies - with more on the horizon.

It is now of critical importance to accurately document the extent to which this malaise has progressed and to take corrective action before long-term damage is inflicted.

The issue at hand is to re-establish a balanced program of scientific research for the nation, and a reboot of the system would do well to revisit the 1978 mandate of NSERC.

In particular, the "aim for a regional balance in scientific capability" and a resolve to "maintain a basic capacity for research training" should move to the top of the agenda.

There has been more than enough unproductive tinkering with the system over the past decade to re-energize the "aim to ensure long-term coherence in the federal system of university research granting." It is indeed appropriate to encourage excellence in research, provided the meaning of the word "encourage" is clearly understood; it is not synonymous with a threat to conform to an assessment of the top few per cent of one's peers otherwise funding will be withheld.

From the science perspective there is no need to "encourage curiosity-driven research."

Such a notion is oxymoronic because it is just such research which defines the base on which science is built. It also provides the reason why any demands, whether implicit or otherwise, to abandon such long-term activity in favour of short-term practical outcomes will not succeed.

A more reasonable approach would be to seek mutually agreeable accommodations whereby both activities are supported on an individual basis. There will be many instances where a basic research project can, with additional financial support, be partially redirected toward a more applied outcome without seriously compromising the original research effort.

It is likely that the majority of scientists would find such a proposition quite reasonable.

All that is required is a peer review process which recognizes the intrinsic value of the basic research being performed by the majority of competent scientists and a willingness to compromise on both sides wherever it is technically feasible to do so.

Maynard J. Clouter is professor emeritus with the department of physics and physical oceanography at Memorial University.

Organizations: NSERC, Industrial Research and Innovation Council, National Research Council

Geographic location: Canada

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page