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NSERC sees researchers as out-source labour

February 1, 2010

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. SpongeBob permalink
    February 2, 2010 08:30

    Once again, let’s look back at the mission of universities, or what it used to be.
    Universities train Highly Qualified People and they generate knowledge. The highest qualified people are trained through cutting edge research. Answering short term demands from companies will not help universities in this mandate, and it is unlikely that the professors and student have the exact know-how to fulfill the request, in the vast majority of the cases. However, in some areas of applied sciences and engineering, it could happen. The question is then, who will perform the work, grad students, diverting them from their own work (and unable to publish the results, impeding a research career)? Undergrads? Probably not the most qualified. Will we see a class of academic entrepreneurs, specializing in this kind of work, develop? Even if it is a small percentage of NSERC budget, $25,000 represents the average grant in many fields, with the shrinking budgets of NSERC, every Engage grant will mean one additional academic without funding somewhere.
    Will this kind of money, in regards to the fields where it will be used, subsidize competition for engineering consulting firms?
    It seems that most of the brilliant ideas NSERC had in the recent past are questionable. Who should we blame, NSERC itself, or do they receive mandates?

    • crf permalink
      February 2, 2010 11:12

      Do the Tories know that there is an organisation called NRC that is somewhat more suited, at least on paper, to partnering with industry? (Well, that’s rhetorical: they know it is a source of funds to shovel at the auto-industry.)

      There are problems at NRC, but the tories should spend some time fixing them, rather than further ruining,in NSERC, one of the few science funding organisations in Canada that ostensibly has a clear mandate and works well implementing it. I’m guessing one of the reasons they are choosing NSERC as the funnel for this program is because it still enjoys a good reputation amongst university researchers. The interested public ought to question why the government is not allowing the most relevant government departments to handle its policy initiatives. Naturally, they might ask whether those departments are being well run.

      The public already knows, from the AECL fiasco, that the government (tory or liberal) is very willing to hide from the public severe problems at government run institutions, right until they spectactularly blow up.

      • SpungeBob permalink
        February 2, 2010 21:10

        crf, you are right about NRC on two points: it is perfectly fit to do this kind of work, and the government is doing very little to support it properly and this started under the Chrétien government.
        In addition, there are already programs such as the NSERC Strategic that companies could use better with universities, for longer term research, not to mention organizations such as CRIQ in Québec.
        What did Nature say two weeks ago? “Canada needs a bigger vision of where its science is going”.
        Canada needs a real minister for science; Canada needs a real Science Academy.

    • Nilima permalink
      February 2, 2010 13:45

      There’s little doubt that the current slate of programs and decisions at TriCouncil leaves much to be desired. However, perhaps the time has come to ask: what are we, as an academic community, doing to influence the discourse and policy for science in Canada? Much of what I see/hear is reactive in nature. It’s also pretty fragmented – hence the CAUT’s position, followed by the positions of the Deans of Engineering and Applied Science.

      Let’s assume our collective assumptions are correct, and that government/policy makers are not terribly aware of how scientific research works, or what the timelines are, or what the importance of basic research is. How do we better inform them, so they are able to make better decisions?

      Speaking only for myself, I’m aware of the deep contradictions in my attitudes. I want to be left alone to do mathematics. I resent poor decision-making at all levels (department, university, granting agencies, government). Yet I don’t really want to necessarily invest the time in constructive dialog at all these venues. My conscience can prick me into participating at the department level, but that’s currently it. Needless to say, this is not helpful.


  1. For NSERC, researchers are out-source labour | Piece of Mind
  2. For NSERC, researchers are out-source labour | Piece of Mind
  3. Time to draw a line in the sand | Piece of Mind
  4. Fortier “not worried” about ongoing review of Ottawa’s R&D spending | Piece of Mind
  5. Empowering knowledge and informed consent (I) | Piece of Mind

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