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More on appointment of Pfizer exec to CIHR board

December 10, 2009

The controversy over the appointment of Pfizer Canada V-P Dr. Bernard Prigent to the governing council of CIHR continues to spread. Yesterday, the debate was the lead item on CBC Radio One’s national current affairs porgram, The Current (you can listen to the broadcast online). While Dr. Prigent (wisely, I figure) declined to participate, the program interviewed two figures near the heart of the debate.

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CIHR appointment of Pfizer exec stirs outrage

December 7, 2009

So, this is what a commitment to research “innovation” is going to look like.

This fall, CIHR welcomed a new member to its governing council: Dr. Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, a division of the world’s largest pharmaceutical company.

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Science Policy from Europe

December 1, 2009

Today, two stories from Europe.

First, science policy took centre stage in the UK recently, with a public debate on science policy involving representatives of all three mainstream British political parties participating. A “packed audience” at Cambridge University witnessed the event, where the parties’ spokesmen addressed the major issues facing British science: future funding levels (the future of the funding “ring-fence” around science), how to decide which projects get funded (the so-called Haldane principle, which says researchers should decide, not politicians), whether research money should increasingly go towards “targeted research” (in Canada, we prefer the euphemism “innovation”), and a few distinctly British issues, including the lobbying of the BBC for more sexy science dramas (actually, that sort of ridiculous idea is the sort of thing Canadian politicians would suggest).

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Canadian post-doc conundrum lands in Nature

November 24, 2009

The difficult situation for Canadian post-docs has landed on the pages of the most recent issue of Nature. While post-docs are underpaid, I think Nature may have underestimated it a bit when they suggest that the average post-doc salary in Canada is $30,ooo (Cdn) – the CAPS survey suggests it is significantly higher.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine this article serving as a positive recruiting tool for Canadian researchers looking for international post-doc talent. Nature’s conclusion: “Postdocs in Canada are underpaid and face uncertain career prospects…“.

That about sums it up, I think.

 

Scientists must be advocates, says researcher

November 23, 2009

When government ignores scientific evidence, scientists have an obligation to speak up, says a BC HIV/AIDS researcher. Dr. Thomas Kerr, a leading researcher with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says that scientists must be governed by peer-review, which acts as a quality control mechanism, but when research results have policy implications, researchers have an obligation to make sure that they are not misrepresented.

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Tri-council funding agencies appear before HoC Finance Committee

November 20, 2009

As part of ongoing pre-budget consultations, on Nov. 5 the House of Commons Standing Committee received representatives from NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR, who presented a submission arguing for increased and ongoing funding for the three agencies. The full text of the tri-council submission can be read as a .pdf file here.

The vapidity of the title sets the mood for the submission: “Canada at the Leading Edge: Common Vision, Concerted Plan”. At a time when science is far from the attention of policy makers, the leaders of the three arm’s-length agencies – de facto representatives of the scientific community – squander an opportunity to make a strong case for science or to present actual suggestions of how to strengthen our system.

The submission opens with a summary of the well-worn statistics from the recent STIC and CCA reports, and echoes the same conclusions – our academic research is world-class but we don’t innovate enough. The report thus takes up the innovation mantra, and promises that research investments will lead to innovation. It isn’t clear, given that we rank near the top of OECD funding levels for academic research, why this funding hasn’t already led to increased innovation. Perhaps that could be explained before simply assuming that more funding equals more innovation.

Then comes an interesting passage that I don’t quite understand. The Introduction concludes:

CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC share a common vision to develop a more agile, dynamic, and responsive approach to funding research…

The same phrase is repeated in the conclusion. What does this mean? Sounds to me like stable, long-term funding is to be sacrificed at the altar of increased flexibility. And what exactly is a “dynamic approach” to funding research? This bureaucratic nonsense speak could have real consequences for researchers. Does agility, dynamism, and responsiveness mean that the agencies will be rapidly changing funding priorities from year to year? Will the agencies just start chasing the hottest trends?

This is a potential disaster for academic research. Real breakthroughs take years and years to develop. Take, for instance, the career of one of Canada’s eminent researchers, Dr. Nahum Sonenberg. Dr. Sonenberg, James McGill Professor in Biochemistry at McGill University, has just been awarded CIHR’s Researcher of the Year for Biomedical and Clinical Research. He is also a Gairdner laureate, and has won numerous other awards and distinctions for his groundbreaking work on protein translation control. Dr. Sonenberg’s fundamental work has led to advances in cancer treatment, theories on memory, and a deep understanding of a fundamental area of cell biology. But these advances took a career to develop. By working in this single area, Dr. Sonenberg was able to push the frontier of knowledge incrementally. His work wouldn’t have been a likely candidate for “dynamic funding”. Only through patient and stable funding are researchers like Dr. Sonenberg able to achieve success. Being agile, dynamic, and responsive is anathema to real scientific progress.

In any case, the report goes on to make three recommendations to the committee: “increase investment… to expand Canada’s research excellence” (yawn); “increase investment to support… top postdoctoral fellows” (great idea, short on details); and “increase investment… to lead strategic partnerships on priority challenges for Canada” (get academia working with industry to solve problems like H1N1 and the medical isotope crisis – not a bad idea so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of solid research for basic, fundamental research). I think it’s absolutely correct to suggest increased funding – especially given the disconnect between infrastructure spending increases and projected decreases in operating funds – but let’s make sure that money isn’t squandered chasing “current events”.

Ryerson Associate Dean wants to spread the research wealth

November 18, 2009

Decentralized funding increases research output and results in more highly-trained researchers, suggests Ryerson Associate Dean Chris Evans.

In an opinion piece published in the online magazine The Mark, Evans suggests that centralizing research funds, à la G5 proposal, would have detrimental effects on research output in this country, and would result in fewer PhD graduates. Though a little late to the debate – the G5 idea is effectively dead – Evans argues that the success of NSERC’s Discovery Grant program, which funds smaller-scale research and is central to research at smaller universities, confirms that decentralizing research dollars “encourages research excellence across a broad range of fields, that the best researchers use the NSERC grants to leverage internationally competitive levels of support from other sources, and, tellingly, that the broad base of NSERC grants sustains national research capacity and student training”.

These criticisms, and similar ones, were widely made after Maclean’s published the G5 proposal in the summer. Evans suggests that the idea of centralizing research dollars was also expressed at the recent Science Policy Conference in Toronto, though I heard no such suggestions in any of the sessions I attended. Heather Munro-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at McGill University and one of the G5, did criticize an approach to funding that “treats every policy as an equalization program”, but this seems a fair criticism and is a far cry from suggesting a specific funding policy to favour large universities over small.

Perhaps Dr. Evans’ word can be the last on this topic, and we can all agree: research excellence should be supported based on merit. To paraphrase the noted academic Dr. Seuss, “Excellence is excellence, no matter how small”.

What to do about Post-Docs?

November 16, 2009

Last week, I highlighted a recent report by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) which outlined the difficult and untenable position for Canadian postdocs. These highly-trained, highly-qualified researchers are stuck between a hiring slowdown in academia and a lack of options outside academia. Adding to the trouble is a huge increase in their numbers, driven by large increases in PhD enrolment. The result is an increasing cohort of wasted talent and training – a “parking lot” of researchers with no obvious home.

Read more…

Post-docs in Canada – a report.

November 12, 2009

The nascent Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has issued a worrying report about the state of post-doctoral life in Canada: “From the “Ivory Tower” to the Academic “Parking Lot“.

Based on a survey they conducted in the spring, the position paper suggests that post-docs in Canada are falling through the academic cracks, and no one is paying attention. The picture is not a positive one – more than 6,000 post-docs are working in Canada, with almost 80% of them earning less than $45,000 annually before taxes. Post-doc tenures are expanding (almost 20% of post-docs in the life sciences now last longer than 5 years), and competition for academic jobs in increasing rapidly. Since 2002, doctoral enrolment has increased more than 60% whereas full-time university teacher numbers increased only 20%.  In 2007, PhD enrolment was more than 40,000, 4,800 doctoral degrees were granted, more than 6,000 post-docs were registered, but only 2600 new faculty were hired in Canada. It is clear that an academic career will be impossible for the vast majority of post-docs.

The report suggests that post-doctoral study is becoming a “parking lot” of HQP who have completed their training and have nowhere to go. Unfortunately, but maybe understandably, the report’s proffered solution to this problem is to increase post-doctoral pay and standing, and to increase opportunities within academia.

This seems like a non-starter; though I think improving working conditions for post-docs is long overdue, solving the oversupply problem by swelling academic ranks is unrealistic. Instead, and getting back to the issue of how we improve industrial commitment to innovation through R&D, more effort should be placed at moving this glut of PhDs from academia into other areas of society. As I’ve written before, I think recently graduated PhDs possess important entrepreneurial skills, but lack any sort of experience or exposure to such a career. If we want more companies like RIM in Canada, we need smart people with experience in R&D to be starting them. Helping post-docs transition out of academia seems a logical step.

“Sherriff of Nottingham” model doesn’t work, G5

November 10, 2009

David Currie, Biology Professor at UofOttawa, published a letter to the editor of Nature where he predicts the effects of concentrating research at a few select universities. Calling it the “Sherriff of Nottingham” model (taking money from the poor to give to the rich), he evaluates whether instituting a preferential funding model for the G5 universities would be likely to increase Canadian research output. Currie finds that research productivity and impact are directly related to research funding, but that the relationships are significantly decelerating. That is, when expressed per dollar invested, productivity and impact both decline as research funding increases.

Therefore, Currie suggests, we get a better “bang for the buck” at smaller universities, and higher overall productivity by spreading the research dollars around.

Productivity and Innovation at CFI annual meeting

November 9, 2009

With so much discussion from the Canadian Science Policy Conference, I haven’t really been keeping up with other goings-on in Canadian science policy news. I’ll survey some of these developments in the next few days.

CFI held its annual public meeting in Ottawa two weeks ago. The keynote address was by Charles Baillie, former CEO and chair of TD Bank and Chancellor Emeritus, Queen’s University. Mr. Baillie used his address to discuss productivity and innovation – the currently-dominant themes in science policy circles (a copy of his speech can be obtained by .pdf).

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Science and Innovation

November 4, 2009

Yesterday, I wrote about the practical element of encouraging sound science policy – the need to communicate effectively. The Canadian Science Policy Conference had a lot to say about it, and there has been much discussion here and elsewhere about how to balance effective communication and sound science.

But what about content? What should Canadian science policy address? Reports from the Council of Canadian Academies (.pdf) and the Science and Technology Innovation Council both lauded much of Canada’s research landscape – especially on the academic side – but also highlighted a major problem: Canada lags much of the world in R&D performed by business. I’ve written about this problem previously, and addressing this problem and its corollary – the lack of innovation in Canadian industry – was a major focus at the policy conference.

Read more…

Science and Communication

November 3, 2009

Last week at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, I picked up on two dominant themes that were repeated in a variety of sessions. The first involved the practical side of improving Canada’s science policy, whereas the second addressed the proposed content of future policy. I’ll discuss the first today, and address the second – the need for science policy to focus on improving innovation – in a later post.

The practical theme surrounded science communication; namely, how scientists and related stakeholders can increase the awareness of science policy issues, and encourage politicians and the public to support stronger science policies. This was a major focus of Preston Manning’s keynote address, but was also addressed in other sessions. I provided an outline of Manning’s arguments in an earlier post, which has generated some interesting and thoughtful discussion. Manning’s main point, if I can paraphrase, is that scientists need to understand the difference between “Receiver-Oriented Communication” (ROC) and “Source-Oriented Communication” (SOC). The former is based on a consideration of the interests, needs, and background of the person you’re speaking to, whereas the latter is based on the interests, needs, and background of the speaker. Too often, scientists engage in SOC communication, and when the message gets garbled or ignored, we lament the scientific illiteracy of the public. Instead, Manning urges scientific stakeholders to engage in ROC. So, if scientists are arguing for the support of a specific funding program, for instance, it is ineffective to frame it thus: “We need this money so that we can upgrade our equipment to pursue our work in X”. Instead, how does the same need fit with the receiver’s interests? Does it fit into the government science and technology program? Does it address something currently under political consideration? etc. It isn’t bastardizing the science or selling out to consider the audience; scientists do it all the time, whether when designing lectures or when submitting to different granting programs. Politics is just a different audience with different needs. We vastly underestimate the degree to which communication dominates politics, Manning suggests, and that the ability to communicate a policy efficiently and effectively is essential to its support. Not sufficient, mind you, but essential. Framing science in appropriate terms for political debate will help its cause. Manning had much more to say – a suggestion to separate policy advice from funding advocacy, the need to get more scientists involved in politics, and more – but I think his suggestion about effective communication generated the most interest. (For an insightful and cogent analysis on the same subject, check out Frogheart, and for some insightful thoughts about the dangers of simplifying science for the sake of communication, check out Jim’s comments on my earlier post).

Canada Science Policy Conference, Day 3

October 30, 2009

Today was the closing day of the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto. The conference was abuzz this morning, as the keynote address was to be delivered by the oft-maligned Junior Minister for Science, etc. Gary Goodyear. After two days of very positive discussion, a sense of real promise was in the air, a sense that it could be possible to craft a dynamic and meaningful science policy – or at least to start a process by which such a policy might take shape. Would the minister capture the mood? Could he demonstrate to the assembled delegates that his office was ready to lead the way?

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Canada Science Policy Conference, Day 2

October 29, 2009

Today was a full-day session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, composed of two morning plenary panel sessions, a keynote address by Preston Manning, and two small-session afternoon slots. I’ll just provide a short overview of the major themes, with a few highlights. I apologize for the length of the post…

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Canada Science Policy Conference, Day 1

October 28, 2009

Greetings from Toronto. I’m at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, which got under way this evening. I arrived five minutes before the opening session (thanks to Via Rail for sitting on the tracks for 45 minutes somewhere around Brockville…) to a huge crowd at the registration desk. When the conference first came to my attention in the spring, I had no idea it would garner the attention and attendance it has. Over the next three days, more than 60 speakers will be addressing more than 350 delegates on a variety of topics related to science policy. Judging from the number of suits I saw, I suspect the delegates are largely made up of government and industry types, though maybe academic researchers in Toronto are just better dressed than I’m used to.

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Science Policy Conference, Toronto

October 27, 2009

I’ll be at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto from Wed-Fri this week. It looks like a really stellar lineup (though there is a marked dearth of actual researchers on the panels – maybe this has to do with the 50th anniversary Gairdner Symposium going on concurrently down the street…). I’ll be posting summaries and commentary here during the conference, and will be providing shorter updates via twitter.

I’m hopeful that this will be a productive contribution to a still-early conversation about the role of science policy in Canada, and a way forward.

More KIP allocation analysis

October 26, 2009

Canwest reporter David Akin, who has been performing yeoman’s work tracking government spending announcements through his twitter feed, has released his own analysis of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program spending allocations. While his numbers and mine differ to some degree, they both point to the same trends – namely, that the money in the KIP program is not being preferentially spent in Conservative ridings.

Akin finds, in fact, that Liberal and NDP ridings are receiving a disproportionate share of the funding, based on seat totals in the House of Commons. The Liberal strength is mostly due to its showing in Quebec (where both McGill and Concordia are in Liberal ridings), whereas the NDP shows strength across the country. The Conservatives are actually receiving less than their seat-percentage share, according to Akin.

This disparity may be explained by the overrepresentation of Canada’s largest universities in non-Conservative ridings, as I pointed out last week. UofT, UBC, York, UdeM, etc are all in ridings that are Liberal or NDP (sometimes both).

The numbers for this analysis are subject to a number of caveats. First, many of colleges and universities who are receiving funding have multiple campuses spread among several ridings, and it isn’t clear where the money is actually being spent. Announcements for specific campuses were appropriately segregated in my analysis, and are sometimes revealing (UofT received three funding announcements in the May 29 spending announcements, one for each of the downtown, Scarborough, and Mississauga campuses, located in NDP, Liberal, and Conservative ridings, respectively).

Second, the government has not made the spending details of the program easy to find. Despite promises of transparency, I had to wade through countless individual spending announcements on the KIP website, and compile the numbers by hand. David Akin reports having visited more than 200 Industry Canada web pages to accumulate his data. The government is still announcing new projects, but is not making details available, suggesting they will be made available “at a later date”. Given the multitude of announcements spread across various sources, it isn’t surprising that Akin and I arrived at different figures, in the details. Given the size and importance of the stimulus money, the government should be doing a better job of making the figures publicly accessible.

Here is the summary from Akin’s nice piece of work:

Where is the money going?

• Conservatives won 46% of ridings and those ridings are getting 38% of Knowledge Infrastructure Program grants.

• Liberals won 25% of ridings and those ridings are getting 29% of Knowledge Infrastructure Program grants.

• The NDP won 12% of ridings and those ridings are getting 25% of Knowledge Infrastructure Program grants.

• The BQ won 65% of Quebec’s seats and are getting 57% of Quebec’s Knowledge Infrastructure Program money.

Biggest Knowledge Infrastructure Program Winners

• University of Sherbrooke (Quebec) is getting $82.95-million in funding. Serge Cardin of the Bloc Quebecois is the local MP.

• The University of Toronto is getting $75.5-million in funding for projects in three different ridings, represented by an NDP, Liberal and Conservative MP.

• The University of Calgary is getting $66.2-million in funding. Conservative Rob Anders is the local MP.

• The University of Alberta is getting $62.1-million in funding. New Democrat Linda Duncan is the local MP.

• The University of Waterloo is getting $50-million. Conservative Peter Braid is the local MP.

KIP Money Being Distributed Equitably, Sort Of

October 23, 2009

The inequitable distribution of stimulus money between Conservative and non-Conservative ridings has been receiving a lot of press. An investigation by the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and Ottawa Citizen showed that Conservative ridings are receiving  disproportionate share of the big-money spending announcements. A report in today’s Globe and Mail also shows that Conservative ridings are receiving about 38% more money than non-Conservative ridings through the Recreational Infrastructure Canada program. Accusations of partisan favoritism weren’t helped by the numerous pictures of Tory MPs handing out oversized government cheques with Conservative logos and their personal signatures on them…

So, what about spending through the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) – the “federal initiative to renew Canada’s college and university infrastructure”?

Read more…

Canada-US contrast in basic research funding

October 19, 2009

A contrasting view of the value placed on basic research was provided by two pieces in national media this weekend. First, in the Canadian online daily The Mark, an assistant director of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy provides an overview of the Obama administration’s attitude towards funding basic research. The assistant director, Kei Kozumi, discusses the recently-adopted policy paper: “A Strategy for American Innovation“.

Kozumi says:”Part of the broad strategy is a policy framework to invest in the building blocks of American innovation. A key policy priority within the strategy is to restore American leadership in fundamental research.” He goes on to describe the large investments proposed by President Obama to support various areas of basic research, and concludes with a general endorsement of the role of R&D in today’s economy: “Inspired by grand national challenges for the 21st century, and acting within a broad strategy for innovation, science and technology policy plays an important role in the policy agenda of the Obama Administration.”

In contrast, Canada’s approach to basic research received a critical overview in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. While the author, John Lorinc, points out that the problem isn’t specific to Canada, he describes a research funding environment where funding is directed to specific policy programs and agendas, like reversing the brain drain or improving living conditions. Acclaimed ULethbridge neuroscientist Bruce McNaughton provides a compelling analogy: “Curiosity-driven research is a bit like passenger railroads. If you let the knowledge base, skills and infrastructure deteriorate, they are not going to be there when you need them, like we desperately do today in Canada.”

Goodyear addresses SSHRC controversy, parrots SSHRC

October 16, 2009

In an interview with The Hill Times, Ottawa’s political weekly, Minister of Science, etc. addresses the SSHRC funding controversy that simmered this summer. In an “email interview” (download) largely focused on policy, the Hill Times asked the Minister for a response to calls for his resignation. The Minister’s response:

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has acknowledged that the email in question is inaccurate. It has also indicated that it is fully satisfied with its handling of the matter, as an arm’s length agency, as it is consistent with SSHRC policies and procedures and with its responsibilities as a steward of public funds.

Goodyear continues:

As a steward of public funds, SSHRC is expected and committed to look into concerns about how awards are being administered. That is why my office informed SSHRC of public concerns we had received regarding the York conference. In accordance with established postaward policies and procedures, and in light of public discussion, SSHRC requested information from the grant holder to assure that conference planning was proceeding in a manner consistent with SSHRC policies and procedures.

While the minister endorses the “independent, arm’s-length” role of SSHRC, his response is awfully similar to SSHRC’s press release, posted Oct. 3 on the SSHRC website:

As stewards of public funds, SSHRC is expected and committed to look into concerns about how awards are being administered. Last Spring, the Minister’s office informed SSHRC of public concerns that they had received regarding a conference at York University… As per its policies and procedures and in light of public discussion, SSHRC requested information from the grant holder in the context of post award procedures as stated in the Grant Holder’s Guide for the Aid to Research Workshops and Conferences program.

Just a coincidence that the Minister’s email interview response and the statement released by an arm’s length funding agency are virtually identical?

Either the Minister’s office is guilty of copy-and-paste from the agency’s website, which would be lazy and incompetent, or else someone is composing the message for both SSHRC and the Minister, which is direct interference. Either way, it certainly makes a mockery of the “arm’s length” relationship between the Minister and the agency.

Partnering with industry positive for researchers, to a point

October 13, 2009

According to an article published last year, partnering with industry is beneficial for researchers, so long as the partnership doesn’t account for more than 15% of the researcher’s total budget. The article, published in Scientometrics, details a case study of two Spanish universities, and finds that “university-industry relations” (UIR) have a positive influence on research productivity so long as they are focused on R&D contracts and when the funds involved constitute no more than 15% of the researchers’ total budget. The authors also discover that researchers that participate in UIR win more funding from competitive private sources, exhibit higher productivity, and achieve higher standing in their institutions.

(Thanks to Daniel Lemire’s consistently interesting blog, which brought the article to my attention).

Canada succeeds in university rankings

October 9, 2009

I was just thinking some more about the THE-QS University Rankings, but instead of looking at the list from an institutional point of view (see previous post), I was thinking about how they reflected the Canadian approach to academia and research. How did Canada do, generally speaking, in the rankings?

Read more…

World university rankings an object lesson in being “elite”

October 9, 2009

The academic world is again abuzz with the release of the Times Higher Education – QS (THE-QS) World University Rankings. It’s a bit of a laughable exercise ranking universities, but there are interesting bits beyond “where did we rank?”.

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Rock Star Scientists

October 6, 2009

The Canadian Stem Cell Foundation has posted a video on their site in support of the Stem Cell Charter – a document designed to promote stem cell research into various human diseases. The “Rock Star Scientists” video features leading international stem cell researchers arguing in support of stem cell research – research which has proven contentious in some countries (eg. the United States). Both the video and the website are highly polished, and the video has some pretty good lines (“we’re not rock stars… we’re just scientists in white coats and nerdy sweaters”). The video makes some pretty strong promises about the potential of stem cells, promises which may lead to unrealistic expectations. Nonetheless, the video helps make a strong case in support of stem cell research (even though the existence of a “stem cell charter” implies that stem cell research might need to be controlled in some way against unscrupulous researchers). You can view the video, meet the researchers, and sign the charter at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation’s website.

More from US on basic vs. applied research

October 1, 2009

While Canadian science policy moves increasingly towards supporting applied research, our neighbours to the south are rediscovering the value of government-funded basic research. Yesterday, for instance, saw US President Barack Obama announce $5-billion in government funding for biomedical research into cancer, AIDS, and other diseases.

In making the announcement in front of scientists at the NIH, Obama underlined the importance of strong government funding of basic research: “we know that that the work you do would not get done if left solely to the private sector”. The funding includes $175-million for The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) – a project to collect and genetically characterize more than 20,000 tissue samples from a variety of cancer types. “We are about to see a quantum leap in our understanding of cancer,” NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins told the Associated Press.

The NIH divides its spending between basic and applied research, spending consistently about 56% of its $30-billion budget on basic research. An extensive and insightful article in Stanford Medicine, though, argues that the distinction between basic and applied research is a damaging dichotomy that continues to cause tension among scientists, and that the research community needs to move beyond these divisions. The tension is vividly described:

Read more…

More on Goodyear-SSHRC “bullying”

September 30, 2009

The alleged threat to withhold funding increases from SSHRC made by a senior member of Minister of Science Gary Goodyear’s office has been picked up by the international journal Science. The article quotes CAUT executive director James Turk describing the action as “heavy-handed bullying tactics”. Though Goodyear has not responded publicly to the allegations, the article quotes one anonymous official who suggests it is simply “a misunderstanding between bureaucrats”.

This dismissive and condescending attitude is consistent with the government’s approach to criticism, but does little to clear the air.

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P.S. Not policy-related, but of interest to those preparing their NSERC Discovery Grants: Diane Harms at Harms & Co. has been posting tons of useful hints and information about grant preparation. It’s been a great series and will be a huge help to anyone preparing their applications.

Goodyear’s office allegedly threatened SSHRC over funding decision

September 29, 2009

Gary Goodyear’s political interference in a SSHRC funding decision reached further than previously thought, with the Science Minister’s chief of staff threatening to withhold future funding increases based on SSHRC’s decision to fund a contentious conference.

At the time, the brouhaha surrounding the York University Israel/Palestine conference led Minister Goodyear to issue a controversial public demand for a second round of peer review of the funding decision. Goodyear also allegedly telephoned SSHRC president Chad Gaffield directly to discuss the funding decision, a major breach of the arm’s length relationship supposed to exist between the government and the agency. The perceived political interference led a number of prominent academic groups to call for the minister’s resignation.

Now, it seems the behind-the-scenes political interference was more intense, with a senior member of the Minister’s office threatening to withhold SSHRC funding increases if the agency didn’t comply with the Minister’s demand.

Read more…

US also ponders role of basic research in innovation

September 28, 2009

We here in Canada aren’t the only ones fretting about the role of research in the innovation economy. A dialogue is ongoing among our neighbours to the south, and much of their discussion also informs our situation. And while government is largely absent from the Canadian debate, which is mostly left to academics, business leaders, commentators, and advisory groups, the American discussion is being forcefully led by President Barack Obama, whose speech in Troy, NY this week highlighted the importance of this issue to his administration. President Obama is demonstrating strong leadership in his endorsement for a solid foundation of basic R&D in the US economic recovery, and is urging Americans to support the research that occurs in universities and government labs as a key element of the new economy:

Read more…

Everyone needs a kick at the G5 can

September 23, 2009

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times about a granting controversy at the NIH (thanks @MargaretAinDC for the link). Experienced investigators are having their grant applications rejected in favour of lower-ranking applications from new investigators in a “scientific equivalent of affirmative action”. NIH managers are using the granting system to encourage graduate students and young investigators to make a career in academia, which many feel is anathema to the merit-based system of awarding grants. Apparently, 19% of grants – worth $380-million – were made as “exceptions”, granted outside the ranking system of reviewers. This figure has doubled since 2003. Advocates both for and against the change in policy weigh in with interesting and valid points.

In other news, the dead-horse G5 concept continues to suffer the boots of excluded schools, which all seem committed to getting their kicks. In this edition, the V-P Research from Ryerson criticizes the plan (“the game that bigger universities play”) as do several researchers from Concordia (“a false, divisive distinction… [that] is really backward looking” – thanks to Russell Cooper for the link). Stay tuned for reactions from the rest.

Ignatieff’s economic plan thin on research

September 22, 2009

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is delivering a speech today to the Toronto Board of Trade in which he will provide “his economic vision for creating long term economic growth through strategic, targeted investments in the new economy and revitalizing Canada’s industrial heartland” (according to the party’s website). The prepared text contains a number of bons mots, a few new details, but is mostly a rhetorical blasting of Stephen Harper.

Read more…

Research Funding Round-up

September 21, 2009

I’ve been a little remiss about posting regularly these last few weeks. Professional commitments (grant season) and personal changes (moving the family to a new city) mean that I have collected a number of interesting tidbits that I’ve not yet posted. Today’s round-up brings all of them to your attention at once!

  1. No election. The Conservatives were placed in the awkward position of being propped up by “socialists and separatists”, but the big winner seems to have been Michael Ignatieff, who finally got to play the opposition by actually opposing something. Fantastic play-by-play commentary of the confidence vote by Kady O’Malley of Maclean’s  (“lie back and think of home renos” – hilarious; thanks to @ottawaspends for the link). This means the election won’t derail the continuing discussion about the role of research and academia in the innovation economy, but also means the community needs to keep working hard to get the politicians’ attention.
    Read more…

More school not the answer to academic entrepreneurship

September 18, 2009

Many of those lamenting the lack of innovation in Canada point to the disparity between academic research and innovative entrepreneurship. Despite our great success at publicly-funded research, we don’t produce related spin-off industries. The recent Science Day in Canada summary echoes the solution suggested by others: “Our institutions must train researchers to be entrepreneurs, not employees”.

It sounds great on paper, but the way forward isn’t clear. Encouraging graduate students to take a few courses in business as part of their training is likely to yield little actual success. Programs like NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program sound good on paper – get teams of researchers to put together programs that combine research training with marketplace preparation – but as Maryse points out in an insightful analysis at her blog Frogheart, “how does a graduate student learn to be entrepreneurial from a senior researcher who’s a tenured professor in an academic environment? Where did the senior researcher get their experience?”

Read more…

Science Day in Canada results revealed!

September 16, 2009

Reshaping Canadian science policy is a hot topic (relatively speaking…) these days, and scientists, industry leaders, NGOs, and government leaders are all making their voices heard.

Today, I came across the summary (.pdf here) of Science Day in Canada – the one-day science policy forum hosted in May by the Public Policy Forum of Canada. It’s a thought-provoking document, and makes some very good suggestions (along with some fairly unlikely hopes and dreams). From the Executive Summary:

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Why funding for basic research is essential

September 11, 2009

Yesterday’s post may have inadvertently given the impression that I disagree with the AUCC’s call for increased academic research funding, including an increase to the tricouncil (NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR) granting agencies. I apologize for any misconceptions. Supporting academic research through the traditional granting agencies is a core part of Canada’s research success, and increasing funding to keep up with other countries is absolutely essential in these turbulent economic times. Any reservations about the AUCC release stem from my sense that straightforward demands for increased funding are increasingly likely to land on deaf ears, and that the research community needs to make strong and persuasive arguments to sway reluctant or resistant governments.

Yesterday, I outlined the direction research funding policy seems headed: forced collaboration between academia and industry through matching funds programs, support for needs-based and applied research at the expense of basic science, and increased direction of research by “end-users”. This policy drift is being pushed, in part, by worries about Canada’s lack of innovation, the perceived lack of success at turning academic research into commercial products.

There are several reasons this is a wrong-headed direction – why linking academia to industry-based funding decisions is bad policy for all concerned – and why increasing support through traditional academic funding models is a good investment. Below are just a few.

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AUCC call for increased funding misses the point

September 10, 2009

According to its magazine, The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) has called for $1.5-billion in new research funding over the next five years. In its pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, the AUCC argues that other countries are making major research investments, and Canada needs to do likewise if it wants to “lead the world in economic and social development”.

“Developing the skills, talent, creative and innovative capacity of Canadians is the best way to promote long-term productivity, economic growth, social advancement and prosperity”, they argue. While lauding the infrastructure spending in the last budget, they note: “It’s wonderful to have new and renovated labs, [but we] also need people to do the research.”

The request for funding suggests investments of $400-million in each of the first two years and $250-million annually for the next three. The spending would target four areas:

  • the core budgets of the granting councils;
  • the Indirect Costs Program;
  • a new program to fund 800 postdoctoral fellowships a year for two years;
  • international research partnerships.

While I applaud the audacity, I think it’s wishful thinking to expect this sort of spending announcement in the next budget. I’m afraid the stimulus ship has sailed.

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Two of G5 presidents make statements, seek to move on

September 8, 2009

The so-called “G5” plan to rejig Canada’s post-secondary strategy has dominated academic headlines during the latter part of summer.  Universally negative reaction from small and mid-sized universities has dominated headlines since the original Maclean’s articles appeared, with little reaction from the G5 members themselves.

Now, two leaders of Canada’s self-styled “academic elite” have made statements seeking to clarify their respective positions. Judging from the statements made by McGill’s Heather Munro-Blum and UofA’s Indira Samarasekera, the “G5” concept may have caught the imagination of academe, but isn’t reflected in any sort of unified plan from the 5 member universities. For her part, Dr. Samarasekera argues that she simply wants to increase the number of graduate students at her school, and suggests that this is motivated partly by the benefits this will have for undergraduate education. On the other hand, Dr Munro-Blum, in a message emailed to students, faculty, and alumni, seeks to distance herself from the whole concept altogether. She suggests that the G5 presidents were misquoted, misunderstood, and had their views “distorted”. She suggests they were simply talking about “innovation”, and that everyone needs to be included – business, government, and universities of all sizes.

While I haven’t seen any comments from the leaders of UBC, UofT, or UdeM, I think these comments – especially those of Dr. Munro-Blum – serve as a death announcement for the “G5” idea, whatever it represented. Just in time, too, since a fall election beckons, and academia will be well-served using its energies to argue for a place at the budgetary table rather than engaging in this sort of infighting. Unity of message and purpose will be even more important when the stimulus hens come home to roost, and provincial and federal governments look to make cuts to balance the books.

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G5 criticism continues to pour in

September 3, 2009

My my, how the hackles have been raised. The proposal to reorient national education policy to officially and explicitly name and recognize Canada’s “elite” research universities – the self-identified “G5” of UBC, UofA, UofT, Mcgill, and UdeM – continues to be roundly condemned. Editorialists, academics, and students from coast to coast have been awoken from their summer slumber to defend their respective institutions from the G5’s “arrogant” proposal.

Even editorialists at the newspapers in G5 cities are criticizing the plan. In fact, it is hard to find anyone publicly supporting it. The G5 leaders themselves, having fired the first shot (so to speak), have been strangely mum in the debate – perhaps they realize that their short-sighted and self-aggrandizing proposal is going down in flames. They surely expected pushback from their colleagues across the country. Perhaps since these colleagues work at such plebeian institutions, they expected criticism to be ignored, or at least poorly expressed.

Read more…

Canwest tracks government spending

September 2, 2009

This isn’t directly related to research funding issues, but I thought it interesting nonetheless. On his blog, Canwest National Affairs Correspondent David Akin provides an interesting overview of Conservative spending announcements since their re-election in October.

According to Canwest, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has released more than 1,500 news releases announcing a total of nearly $70-billion in spending during the past 11 months.  Furthermore, during Parliament’s summer recess, typically a quiet time for government announcements, there have been 550 spending announcements for almost $10-billion. The summer recess has spanned 70 days – meaning the government has made an average of more than seven announcements each and every day (including weekends) for a total of more than $140-million announced daily, while the government has been adjourned.

While KIP spending announcements continued through the summer, science and research didn’t make Akin’s list of the biggest individual spending announcements (skills training, infrastructure, and defense announcements were the big ones). And despite doing his best, our beleaguered Minister of Science, etc. Gary Goodyear didn’t make the top five for either amount spent or press releases issued (Human Resources Minister Diane Finley was tops in both categories).

Of course, the Conservatives need to spend quickly, since the election is yet again, apparently, inevitable

Academic in-civil war

September 1, 2009

Summer is a fallow period for politics – legislatures close, politicians return home to consult their constituents (especially those who happen to be at the cottage…), and the government’s legislative agenda sits dormant through the long days of July and August. Typically, heated policy debate takes the summer off – without a steady supply of government announcements and activity, what’s to get worked up about?

Well, if all else fails, fight amongst yourselves. This summer, the leaders of this country’s pre-eminent research universities, perhaps bored with the lack of policy action, launched a policy suggestion that has stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate among academics across the country. The leaders of the so-called “G5” group of universities have suggested that they should be recognized, and receive support commensurate with that recognition, as distinctive, elite research institutions, and should therefore have different mandates and functions than the rest of Canadian academe. I’m not convinced anyone in the broader public is paying much attention to the discussion, but it hasn’t stopped the development of an internecine battle between the bigs and the smalls.

UBC, UofA, UofT, McGill, and UdeM are already recognized as our “elite” research universities by the granting agencies – they receive the lion’s share of research money in this country, and do so by winning competitive awards. Presumably, an “elite” university should have no problem succeeding in a meritocratic granting system – so what’s the point of making the distinction?

Perhaps making a distinction between the G5 and the rest will free the big schools to concentrate on graduate education and research, and will allow smaller schools to concentrate on undergraduate teaching. Again, though, this is already the case, absent any official decree – undergraduate education isn’t a priority at the G5 like it is at smaller schools, with enormous classes and fleets of teaching assistants. Small universities already tend to focus on undergraduate education. St. Francis Xavier isn’t trying to be UofT, and vice versa. So again, why bother?

Though the G5 are already de facto “elite” research universities in Canada, perhaps a renewed national academic strategy is necessary to compete with the best internationally. As I blogged previously, though, Dr. Jamil Salmi’s research indicates that to be a globally elite university you need international academics and students, huge endowments, and autonomy. It isn’t clear how the G5 proposal will address any of these issues, or why policies designed to address them wouldn’t be equally well-applied to smaller institutions.

In fact, I really don’t understand the motivation behind the G5 proposal. With a government that has shown a willingness to cut research funding budgets while engaging in profligate spending elsewhere, why not join voices with institutions across the country to argue for strengthening research funding policy, generally?

Worse, the big universities risk a major backfire. The smaller institutions who have been rankled by the G5 suggestion are numerous and widely spread across the country. The G5 (with the exception of UofA) are in ridings the Conservatives have no hope of winning, whereas the smaller universities are often in the suburbs and small towns that are the Conservatives’ bread and butter. Furthermore, the research money that goes to these smaller universities tends not to be in the form of enormous CIHR biomedical grants, but rather supports smaller, targeted research projects that align with the government’s current agenda. Finally, this government is consistently anti-elite, populist, and mistrustful of authority. Do the G5 really think Stephen Harper’s conservatives are going to side with them against the criticisms from places like Lethbridge, Windsor, and Charlottetown? It will be easy for the Conservatives to argue that the G5 are bloated, self-centred, elitist ivory towers who want to keep small, hard-working schools in their place. It’s the same argument they use against the Liberals, and – frankly – there may be a ring of truth to it.

Canadians should be rightly proud of our big research universities, but should also be proud of the rest. Yes, there are problems with research and innovation and connections between academia and industry. The system may be broke, but I don’t know that this is the right way to fix it.

I’ve attached links to a number of articles across the country:

Knowledge Infrastructure Program, round two

August 26, 2009

Despite having spent “93%” of Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) funds, the government continues to drag out the dog days of summer with new KIP spending announcements. Alberta joins BC as provinces to have received a second round of announcements. The amounts announced aren’t as dramatic this time, but the money is certainly being widely spread as the feds seem to be intent on making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie. Recipients in BC include Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Northern Lights College, and the Justice Institute of British Columbia.

While I’m sure these institutions are valuable contributors to post-secondary training and education, their funding under the program underscores how little KIP spending has to do with research, despite the government’s insistence to the contrary. These are political spending announcements designed, as always, to garner votes in diverse regions and with key demographics.

Appealing to targeted voters might also explain announcements of KIP money to two Christian Universities, Trinity Western University (TWU) and Atlantic Baptist University. KIP spending is, according to the government’s press releases, designed to “keep Canada’s research and educational facilities at the forefront of scientific advancement”. The funding to Trinity Western will provide $1.7-million to fund an expansion to the facilities which house the  Department of Biology, where “biological issues are viewed in light of a thoughtful Christian perspective”.  What is this Christian perspective? According to statements attributed to Trinity Western’s Board of Governors, “A doctrine of divine creation based on Scripture is the first element of a Christian worldview”.

Government support for religious education is a controversial subject which has been widely debated in other contexts, and I’m not particularly interested in rehashing the debate. Nonetheless, I think spending designed to support “educational facilities at the forefront of scientific advancement” – spending used by the government to counter criticism that it isn’t investing enough in scientific research and is risking Canada’s place in a competitive global environment – is inappropriately targeted to institutions whose basic principle (“education firmly rooted in the Christian faith”, as Atlantic Baptist states) contradicts basic precepts of research.

KIP spending may have lots of good justifications, but support for cutting-edge research is clearly not foremost among them.

Ontario funds early researchers

August 18, 2009

The Ontario government announced yesterday a total of $11.5-million in funding for 82 research projects across the province, as part of its Early Researcher Awards program. The funding targets researchers in their first five years of independent research, and will apparently fund a total of 338 “up-and-coming” researchers across that province.

Scholarships being cut

August 14, 2009

The Globe and Mail is reporting today that British Columbia is cancelling a twenty-year old scholarship program designed to reward and encourage top high-school students in that province. The Premier’s Excellence Awards provide $15,000 scholarships to each of 15 high-achieving BC high school grads who choose to pursue undergraduate studies in their home province. The government chose to cut these awards, which cost the government $240,000 annually, in order to “protect programs that make postsecondary education affordable”, according to BC’s Minister of Advanced Education.

While grants and subsidies designed to make universities affordable are laudable, programs designed to recognize and encourage excellence are an important component of encouraging a strong, innovative economy. The sum the BC government is saving is relatively small, and the effect on recipients is no doubt disproportionately large. For a 19-year old heading off to university, a $15,000 recognition from the province not only provides an immense source of pride, but can engender a real sense of accomplishment and responsibility. It tells these students, and serves as a signal even to those who don’t receive them, that there are benefits and rewards for excellence, and encourages them to continue high levels of achievement. The newly minted Vanier Scholarships are designed for just this purpose – to recognize and encourage high-achieving post-grads. Unfortunately, undergraduate merit-based scholarship programs are suffering in the current economic climate.

The BC program cut coincides with the cancellation of the federal government’s Millennium Scholarship program. The Millenniums were also designed to recognize and reward top students from across Canada who were starting their university studies. In neither case has there been a national outcry about the cuts. Imagine the reaction if needs-based financial aid was being cut the same way – student and political groups would be up in arms. Merit-based programs just don’t have the same constituency. The Globe quotes Andrew Woodall, director of the Millennium program, “I think it is a Canadian approach that people are not going to be up in arms about something called excellence or merit being cut”.

It isn’t just undergraduate scholarships that suffer from this apathy about excellence. There is a connection between this story and the discussion that’s been taking place here in the last few days about excellence vs. equality (for lack of a better descriptor) among Canadian universities. Do we want to encourage a few standout insititutions? Or do we want a large number of good, but not great, institutions? The same questions may inform the debate about Canada’s lack of innovation leadership. Do we support and admire risk-taking, innovative industry leaders? Or do Canadians mistrust approaches outside the tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road traditions?

Maybe rewarding merit and admiring excellence just isn’t in the Canadian psyche.

How to make a world-class university

August 12, 2009

There are three elements that are required for a university to claim a place with the world’s elite institutions, argues Jamil Salmi. Dr. Salmi is the author of a recent World Bank report describing the attributes of the world’s best institutions – those that figure prominently and consistently in the top of the various rankings – and has written a summary article available online through Forbes.

So, what does it take?

  1. Top-notch students and professors. This is perhaps not surprising, but Dr. Salmi points out that the top universities compete internationally for students. At Harvard, Columbia, and Cambridge, he points out, roughly 20% of students are from outside national borders.
  2. Lots of money. Especially in the US, huge endowments at public research universitied provide stability and flexibility not afforded at publicly-funded schools. This stable funding allows these institutions to plan long-term, instead of focusing on constant budget battles. Dr. Salmi points out that at the richest of the US schools, endowment funds provide roughly $40,000 annually per student; in Canada that figure is roughly $1,000.
  3. Freedom and autonomy. It isn’t a coincidence that most of the elite universities are private institutions, free from the bureaucracy and public standards that impede flexibility. These institutions are more agile and able to adapt to changing conditions. Beyond this, though, is a commitment to unrestrained inquiry, academic autonomy, and creative thinking that allows innovation to flourish.

The presidents of Canada’s biggest research institutions have recently been discussing how to get Canadian universities (their own, of course) into the world’s elite. Dr. Salmi warns, however, that joining this club may not be in our best interest:

A word of caution: Countries rushing to build elite research universities should consider whether they can afford the huge price of building and running such institutions without short-changing the rest of the country’s education system.

This seems to echo the sentiments from the presidents of small and medium sized institutions that I mentioned yesterday. Canada’s big five universities already receive a very disproportionate amount of available research funding. Where will the rest of the money come from?

Instead, I think our universities should strive to embrace the other elements of Dr. Salmi’s plan – academic integrity, freedom, and diversity will benefit schools of all sizes. The big five can work to increase their endowments, and perhaps the government can help out by making such donations more attractive for donors, and our universities may evolve to join the world’s elite without overhauling our entire system.

Presidents from small/medium universities respond to the “G5”

August 11, 2009

Maclean’s has published an article in which presidents from seven small and medium universities respond to a previously published call to rethink the one-size-fits-all approach to Canadian universities.

The presidents interviewed (from Waterloo, Guelph, Simon Fraser, Lakehead, Lethbridge, St. Thomas, and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology) seem wary of creating an exclusive designation for the major research heavyweights, suggesting that smaller institutions often excel in specialized research areas overlooked by the big five. Furthermore, they suggest the perceived prestige of the research-heavy institutions will lead to a two-tier academic system.

Despite some differences, all the presidents support the suggestion, made by the G5 presidents and echoed by government and advisory panels, that the ability to translate research to the marketplace remains the fundamental challenge facing the emerging Canadian economy.

Harper announces second round of KIP funding in BC

August 10, 2009

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a high-profile appearance in Victoria, BC last week to announce the second round of KIP funding. Notwithstanding that 93% of the $2-billion program has been allocated, according to a government spokeman, the PM announced a second round of funding announcements. Fifteen additional BC projects were announced for an additional $35-million, adding to the 29 announced in the first round of funding.

The PM laid out the rationale for the program in his speech:

[We’re] investing in knowledge infrastructure, in the universities, colleges and other post-secondary institutions that are preparing Canadians for the jobs and opportunities of tomorrow, and that are conducting the scientific and technological research that will keep Canada at the forefront of a rapidly evolving global economy… especially those that will improve the quality of research and development at the province’s universities and colleges and help them attract and retain the best minds from across Canada and around the world.

Though the PM didn’t announce the specific programs that will “attract and retain the best minds” to “[conduct] the scientific and technological research that will keep Canada at the forefront of a rapidly evolving global economy”, funded programs reportedly include a new “café” at Camosun College’s library in Victoria. It might be tempting to argue that this type of project undermines the government’s claim that the Knowledge Infrastructure Program demonstrates its commitment to research. However, Susan Haddon, director of communications at Camosun, points out: “It’s going to be a lively space, whereas libraries of old were silent”. Given the collaborative nature of much contemporary research, I’m sure the Camosun café will be a hotbed of academic activity.

“Nearly” all KIP money spent

August 5, 2009

According to Gary Goodyear’s spokesman, 93% of Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) spending had been spent by early July – “though not necessarily announced” – reports University Affairs. A total of 428 projects at 132 university and college campuses had received notice of funding from the $2-billion program by the end of July (including $350,000 for the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, his chiropractic alma mater and where he has previously taught – I’m just pointing it out). The UA article quotes Mr. Goodyear:

“I was very happy with the provinces coming forward with projects that just nailed the criteria and merit and, of course, had that economic stimulus and job creation,” he said. “Although the work was heavy and there were lots of projects, it did make it easy.”

Forty-six projects received at least $10-million in funding from the KIP program, and when provincial and private investments are included, a total of 74 campuses received at least $10-million for projects. Even the Liberal critic, Gerald Kennedy praised (mildly) the government’s work: “The government was under some heat for its lack of support for actual research, and I think maybe this was partly how they hoped they would outlet some of that pressure, ” though he couldn’t help but point out, “In any event, it is in a bit better shape than some other aspects of the [federal] infrastructure program. But I’m still not convinced that it adds up to any kind of coherent vision for how campuses … should really develop in this country.”

In the interview, Mr. Goodyear didn’t mention any coherent vision for campus development (though others are also calling for such a vision), but instead pointed to addressing the innovation gap as a future priority for his ministry:

Where we can do better is exactly where we’re going to focus. We can be a little better in terms of innovation, with respect to industry. Relationships between industry and universities can be improved, and any ideas to get that collaborative effort going better are exactly what we’re interested in doing.

Presumably, the Science Policy Conference, where the Minister will be a keynote speaker, will present a profitable forum for how “to get that collaborative effort going better”. If you have any ideas, then “it’s exactly what [they’re] interested in doing”, so you can post them here and we can promote them, or you can contact the minister directly.

Manning, Goodyear to speak at Policy Conference

August 4, 2009

I’ve blogged about this event before, but the speaker list has grown and more details are now available about the Science Policy Conference scheduled for Oct 28-30 in Toronto. Keynote speakers are Preston Manning and Gary Goodyear (though I wonder whether Minister Goodyear will still hold the science and technology portfolio if the Prime Minister shuffles cabinet when Parliament resumes on Sept 14). The speaker list also includes Alain Beaudet and Suzanne Fortier, presidents of CIHR and NSERC, respectively, in addition to a wide array of academics and industry leaders. The preliminary program looks promising, with topics including government policy-setting, industry innovation, and public engagement. Registration is open, and I encourage interested scientists to attend and participate. It’s important for all stakeholders to be involved in discussions surrounding the future of Canadian science policy – including actual researchers. I’ll be there and will look forward to meeting any of you who will also be attending.

“G5” University Presidents propose academic rethink

July 29, 2009

Maclean’s has published an interesting two-part series (here and here) based on an in-depth discussion with the leaders of Canada’s largest universities, the so-called “G5”. The presidents of the Université de Montréal, McGill University, University of Toronto, University of Alberta and University of British Columbia propose that Canada’s egalitarian approach to post-secondary education is ill-suited to the competitive global marketplace for talent and ideas. Instead, these leaders suggest differentiating the large, research-intensive universities from smaller, undergraduate-focused liberal arts institutions, thereby allowing each to focus on core strengths.

The presidents cite numbers from the recent STIC report that show that, though Canada sits at the top of the pack in post-secondary education, our numbers are inflated by the large number of Canadians who attend community colleges.  Canada is in the middle of the pack, or worse, in the numbers of post-graduate degrees granted, which bodes ill for Canada’s future competitiveness. Furthermore, our research-intensive universities are ill-suited to increase graduate student enrolment, or to attract high-calibre international research talent, due to a too-broad mandate. An approach that allows schools to focus on either research or undergraduate training will be to the benefit of the institutions and the students who attend both.

The G5 presidents aren’t proposing a radical change in funding allotment, noting that their universities already receive more than 40% of research funding in Canada. Not surprisingly, they suggest that research funding needs to be increased generally, especially in light of research funding cuts in the most recent federal budget, and they seem nervous about how university budgets will fare when the government needs to make cuts to address the deficit. The presidents also suggested they needed to increase tuition rates while providing increased financial aid, and needed to attract more international students and researchers.

More important than these individual suggestions, though, is the need to adopt an overall strategy to make our academic system world-class. To this end, the presidents suggest a “first-ministers’ conference on the innovation economy”. This summit would include political and academic leaders but would also include leaders from industry who, together, would seek to improve the process of translating research innovation into private sector success. The need for industry participation is clearly made by David Naylor, President of UofT:

Right now the heat is on economic recovery. A big part of the issue is how we move discoveries and innovation from university bench tops out to the marketplace. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say again, universities don’t commercialize. Commercialization is done by companies, not by universities. So much as I’d like to be party to a lot of special pleading about post-secondary, I think the heat right now is on the innovation economy, and we’re part of that. But we’re not a driver.

What sorts of topics might be included in such a summit? Again Naylor has suggestions. The federal system of tax credits for research and devlopment needs reexamination: “It’s incredibly expensive, it’s often inefficient. At a time when we have falling government revenues it needs a close look”. Naylor also questions the role of the NRC: “We spend $850 million a year on the NRC: is it doing what it needs to do as an applied research and commercialization entity? There’s open questions about that.”

The initiative on the part of these presidents (they apparently initiated the interview with Maclean’s) is to be applauded, even if (and perhaps especially if) one can’t agree with all of their suggestions. I understand that some may chafe at their suggestion to make explicit the distinctions between large and smaller universities, though this distinction is already implicitly recognized through reputation and funding success. I think the changes will benefit both undergraduate and graduate students; undergrads who attend the big universities are often dismayed at the size of their classes and the remoteness of the faculty, whereas graduate students at small universities may feel isolated by relatively small research communities. Regardless, a targeted discussion about the role of the university should help to clarify what exactly Canadians expect from these institutions, which have developed and evolved through ad hoc responses to changing government directives instead of a coherent strategy.

A targeted discussion of how to improve Canada’s innovation is also to be encouraged, and industry’s participation can’t be understressed. Though differences in approach may be suggested, an overall strategy for innovation should be much better than the “forest of boutique programs”, as Paul Wells calls them, created over the decades by shifting governments.

The academic community seems to be positively bristling with readiness to engage in this discussion. The media is showing an interest and willingness to open a dialogue space. Despite having received several detailed reports about research and development this year, the government hasn’t yet shown a public commitment to engage in the discussion, and industry has been almost entirely silent. Everyone agrees Canada’s innovation and competitiveness need to be improved – the first ministers’ meeting would be a powerful and symbolic show that Canada is addressing the issue.

Manley doesn’t see innovation in our DNA

July 28, 2009

John Manley thinks we need to adapt to quickly changing economic conditions or our country will suffer – and he doesn’t seem to like our chances. Nonetheless, he’s going to jump into the fray when he takes over the leadership of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), an exclusive club which includes the chief executives of Canada’s 150 largest companies. In an interview with Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells (who has been consistently good and interesting on research issues in his blog, inkless wells), Manley summarized the challenge facing today’s Canadian corporations: “innovate or perish”.

Manley had some interesting thoughts on why Canadian companies present such a poor track record of innovation and competitiveness:

I don’t think you could say that innovation is deeply in the DNA of our Canadian business enterprises. We have built prosperity, up to and including this decade, on a fairly basic paradigm: we are rich in natural resources. We’re good at harvesting them. And we have built a manufacturing and processing sector, and to some degree a services sector, which has been quite successful in exploiting access to the U.S. market.

As paraphrased by Wells, the Canadian model has been to build build factories close to the US and then lob products across the border. This strategy relies on a cheap loonie, which has disappeared. So why hasn’t this model been replaced with small, vital start-ups? “What you see, especially in small, technology-driven businesses, is a shortage of people who know how to grow them, how to manage them,” according to Manley.

When Manley takes the helm of the CCCE, he’ll be representing the leaders of Canadian industry. These are the very companies who have long sustained the “lob it over the border” mentality in Canadian business. It remains to be seen whether Manley can lead them in a new direction and evolve the Canadian mentality to a more dynamic and innovative strategy.