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CERCs: Innovative Research, Stale Criticism

May 21, 2010

Canada’s poor innovation record in science and technology is well-documented and much maligned. Less well-publicized is our abysmal track record of innovation in complaint and criticism.

This week, the government announced the inaugural Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs). This program involves providing $200-million to an elite group of recruits who are performing world-class, cutting-edge research. It involves the recruitment of 19 researchers and associated research staff to 13 universities across Canada. Combined with the addition of post-docs and other researchers to their labs, the recruitment of these chairs will mean hundreds of new scientists working in basic and applied research across the country. Furthermore, with stable and sizable funding, these researchers will be freed from the scrabbling for money as research funding is increasingly targeted to ever-changing government priorities. Many academics would thrill for this sort of research independence.

And these researchers aren’t just brains – they’re leaders, many of whom are leaving positions as heads of research centres and networks in their home countries. That means they bring with them not just the capacity to build collaborative research projects with their colleagues here, but also connections with leading scientists from around the world. Despite the stereotype, world-class scientists d0n’t hole themselves away in the lab, shunning all contact with the outside world. The best researchers – as these are – are highly-networked and widely engaged, and contribute to the research efforts of numerous labs beyond their own. Established, successful scientists improve the performance of their colleagues. And 13 universities across the country will reap these benefits – as will, to varying degrees, researchers across the country.

The Guardian (UK), reacting to the defection of four of its “foremost” scientists, raised the spectre of the dreaded “brain drain”. Over here, the Globe and Mail and the National Post agreed (a rare thing, indeed) in celebrating our “brain gain”. Universities across the country trumpeted their success, which was duly picked up in local papers in communities from coast to coast. It was, as Paul Wells of Maclean’s wrote, a big day in Canadian science.

Alas, the Toronto Star was having none of it. “All-male research group” trumpeted the headline; “19 men, no women” reinforced the sub-hed; “Not one woman…” shouted the first three words of the lede.

And with that, we moved away from the uncomfortably novel good news story of research excellence, and back to well-trod complaint and criticism: Culture Wars 101, the comforting narrative of how the Harper government hates women. Just to be sure we understood, the Star article was sure to make it explicit, in the first sentence, pointing out that not one woman was funded by “Stephen Harper’s government”.

Tired, predictable debate was back in full swing. Conservative cabinet ministers were on the defensive, Liberal members made political hay, and culture warriors had transformed the announcement into just another tool of tired, predictable rhetoric. “Kicked in the stomach”, a women’s studies professor at UNB described. “How many men teach women’s studies?” the National Post responded disingenuously (and irrelevantly).

No sane person actually believes Stephen Harper – or frankly, any of his cabinet ministers – had any direct input into who was selected. No matter. Everyone to the trenches! Funding research for severely brain-damaged patients is just abortion politics in different garb.

Sure, I was surprised that there weren’t any women among those selected. But is this plain old-fashioned sexism? Really? Are we really still having this discussion? Suzanne Fortier, head of NSERC, one of an ad hoc committee struck by the government to investigate the situation, explained that there were just too few women in the pool of applicants. Acknowledging this would lead to the more interesting and profitable question of why that is so. But no, the Liberal status-of-women critic dismisses that argument, suggesting that (in the words of The Star) “the situation is the result of the Conservative government closing its eyes to any discussion of women’s issues.”

The research community should resist being drawn into this battle. It’s bigger than us. Best to get above the fray. Kudos to Sumitra Rajagopalan who, in a Globe op-ed this morning, suggested the criticism “reveals how out of touch these critics are with today’s women scientists and their fields.” She argues persuasively that gender-accounting has no place in research appointments:

Any systemic bias that might have once existed in science is finished. If anything, science and engineering departments the world over now actively seek female candidates for open positions – and many women find it patronizing. The notions of “equity” and “excellence” are simply incompatible.

The other usual complaints have been raised, too. Complaints about the government’s commercialization agenda and the inequity of concentrating funds in few hands instead of spreading it equally (ie. thinly) across the country have also been heard, not least from the Canadian Association of University Teachers in a highly critical press release. Believe me, I symapthize, but these criticisms and complaints are repeated, practically verbatim, every time this government makes any sort of research-related announcement. But these aren’t NSERC Discovery Grants. These aren’t industry-academia targeted funding grants. The CERCs are designed to improve our high-achievement research and to recruit international research stars to Canada. Of course they’re not distributed equally…

Let’s get this straight. The tricouncil’s budgets total about $2.3-billion annually. The CERC program represents $200-million over seven years, or less than $29-million a year. Conveniently, that works out to roughly 1% of the budget. One percent. About the same amount as the government spends on the Vanier Scholarships. Do you really think NSERC Discovery Grants holders are desperately wishing they had received 1% more ($334) in their individual budgets? Should we have increased the number of Discovery Grants recipients by 1% (an extra 20 grants)? Is this honestly what we’re fighting for?

Yes, I believe there are all sorts of things that need to be fixed in our research funding policies (else I’d stop blogging and spend this time outside in the sunshine…). Yes, stable funding should be extended to more researchers across Canada and we should work hard to support home-grown researchers. But if you want to create and support excellence, a rigid adherence to egality doesn’t work.

Instead of resorting to reflexive criticisms and complaints of sexism and elitism, let’s take a breather. Maybe this program isn’t so bad after all. Maybe these researchers will help build the scientific environment we want, leading to future Canadian innovation. Maybe this is actually a legitimate investment in academic research by this government and could be… applauded?

And then again, maybe not. But if this investment doesn’t lead to innovation in science and technology, let us at least innovate in the field of complaint and criticism. Rehashing the same, tired old arguments will otherwise condemn us forever as hewers of gripe, drawers of grouse.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    May 21, 2010 15:10

    Excellent blog entry! The parroting by those affronted by this program will serve no one and certainly not women scientists. Sumitra Rajagopalan has it exactly right. This was not about equality and diversity. If one wants to ensure those important criteria, fund more scholarships and fellowships (actually, this is exactly why the Vanier scholarships are problematic, number is more important than value at this level). The CERC process had many flaws but compromising excellence was not one of them, nor was geography. U Montreal won no nomination slots. McGill had two slots but failed to capture a nominee. PEI grabbed one. This is what competition is all about. If researchers feel entitled to per capita support unrelated to merit, they should move to North Korea.

    I do hope the focus on bringing people into Canada has not disenfranchised those already here. That is a genuine concern as Canada will be rich pickings for me-too programs with bigger budgets and less restrictions in fields.

  2. Jim permalink
    May 22, 2010 08:41

    There’s a letter in todays G&M from Peter Dibble, a professor in chemistry from Lethbridge, that bemoans the investment in the CERCs at a time that NSERC funded researchers are struggling:

    This sort of entitlement argument will attract no sympathy from politicians or the public. What he doesn’t mention is the success rate is still over 50%. Moreover, his math is appalling.

    “To put this latest investment into perspective, the annual Discovery Grants budget is just over $400-million and funds 10,000 scientists. Our government has just invested half that amount in 19 scientists.”

    He conflates the 7 year value of the CERC program ($190 million) that will fund 19 scientists as half of the one year funding from NSERC ($400 million) that funds 10,000 scientists. In 2009, of 3200 applicants to the NSERC Discovery grants program, 2050 were funded (64% success rate). See the data from this blog. No wonder the government doesn’t take researchers seriously!

  3. Nilima permalink
    May 31, 2010 21:53

    I was blissfully out of the loop around the CERC until the announcements recently. What was the nomination and subsequent selection process? Rob raises the right question, which is why were there so few women in the applicant pool? I’m curious.

    Without seeking to draw parallels, here’s an interesting experience to document. I was at an organizational meeting for a large sequence of workshops. We were brainstorming on whom to invite (and yes, a lot of my picks were my buddies). I kept some notes, and it was obvious not a single woman was on the list. I pointed this out. People stopped, thought, and then came up with some more names, all women. All the participants at the meeting were happy with the outcome, and no one is worried for a minute that scientific quality is compromised. On the contrary, we have some added topics motivated by the work of some of these “late” additions. Had I not piped up, we’d have gone home happy as well.

    I think it’s a simple enough oversight, sometimes, in a network-intensive system. We may not immediately *think* of the younger or female or other colleagues in such situations.

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