NSERC sees researchers as out-source labour
A couple months ago, NSERC announced two new programs as part of its “Strategies for Partnership and Innovation”. Engage grants are designed to cover direct project costs for up to 6 months and a total of $25,000, and Interaction grants are for $5,000 over three-months to help set up qualifying industry-academic partnerships.
There are a lot of academics who may see some commercial benefits to their research and may seek partnerships and funding to help with this process, so what’s the problem?
Well, these programs aren’t designed to take research from the bench to the market – they’re designed explicitly to bring the market to the bench. They will fund NSERC-eligible researchers who can address a “company-specific problem” for an industrial partner. That’s right: NSERC will subsidize companies to effectively hire academics to do their work. Our academics, instead of dedicating themselves to fundamental, peer-reviewed research, can be branch plants for industry. And furthermore, NSERC will pay for it!
Oh, and by the way, funding decisions are independent of scientific peer-review. The program announcements promise quick turnarounds of three weeks for Interaction grants and four to six weeks for Engage grants. There are no “selection committees” for these grants, but rather an “advisory committee” that will oversee the program as a whole. In the outlines of both grants, no mentions are made of “peer review”. So,what, decisions will be made by NSERC bureaucrats, with ‘peer-review’ being shelved in favour of efficiency?
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) unanimously passed a resolution condemning the new programs, pointing out the lack of consultation with the academic community. It condemns the lack of peer-review, and suggests “the targeting of granting council funds to private industry’s needs erodes Canada’s capacity to contribute to the general advancement of knowledge in the public interest”.
In a letter to CAUT, NSERC president Suzanne Fortier defends the programs, suggesting they will connect researchers to “sources of research ideas, facilities and funding in industry and government”. While it’s true that “company-specific problems” are, indeed, a source of research ideas, is this really how we want public research funds being allocated? To fund industry research? To take academics away from projects deemed important by their peers and to become labour for outsourcing? Isn’t this insulting and pathetic?
Not everyone is worried, though. The National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science has no problem with the new programs, rightfully noting that Canada lags other countries in private sector investments in R&D. These new programs, however, do not require investment by the private partner, so are in truth simply a subsidy of public funds and academic time and skill to the company. The company retains all intellectual property, though it must “demonstrate clear intentions to further develop and apply any technology for the benefit of the Canadian economy”, whatever that means.
The Deans also raise the defense that the new programs constitute a small percentage of NSERC’s total operating budget – less than 1%. Not only is this an awfully weak defense, it isn’t so much the size of the funding allotment, but the signal it sends. Publicly-funded academics working to solve industry’s problems, no peer-review – these are major departures from NSERC’s traditional mandate.
Fears that these types of programs represent the future of NSERC are fuelled by NSERC’s website. The “Partnerships” initiatives figure prominently in at least three places on the homepage. Click through and you find a much more slick and professional looking “Partnerships” site than the bland NSERC homepage – it looks more like a commercial site than a government agency. Tellingly, the “What People Are Saying” section, with comments from “key stakeholders”, includes only quotes from industry leaders – not a single academic or administrator.
Look, I understand that the government is trying to figure out how to increase innovation and industrial R&D in this country. But turning NSERC into an outsourcing service for industry – without peer review, and with subsidies to boot – is entirely the wrong way to go.