University scientists and academic organizations are uncharacteristically vocal about the government’s blunt preference for commercially applicable science
Canada’s National Research Council is the country’s premier scientific institution, helping to produce such inventions as the pacemaker and the robotic arm used on the American space shuttle. But last year, its mission changed.
The Canadian government announced a transformation of the 98-year-old agency, formerly focused largely on basic research, into a one-stop “concierge service” to bolster technological innovation by industry — historically weak — and generate high-quality jobs.
This has set off a dispute over the future of Canada’s capacity to carry out fundamental research, with university scientists and academic organizations uncharacteristically vocal about the government’s blunt preference for commercially applicable science.
“We are not sure the government appreciates the role that basic research plays,” said Kenneth Ragan, a McGill University physicist and president of the Canadian Association of Physicists: “The real question is, How does it view not-directed, nonindustrial, curiosity-driven blue-sky research? I worry the view is that it is irrelevant at best and that in many cases they actually dislike it.
The remodeling of the research council is one in a series of policy changes that have generated fierce pushback by Canadian academics in recent years. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also under fire for closing research libraries, shutting down research facilities and restricting when government scientists can speak publicly about their work. Last year the Canadian Association of University Teachers began a national campaign, “Get Science Right,” with town-hall meetings across the country to mobilize public opposition to the policies. Scientists have even taken to the streets of several Canadian cities in protest.
While the transformation of the National Research Council has been criticized, the government as well as some science-policy analysts say that better connecting businesses with research is an important step for Canada.
Having examined models in other countries, the National Research Council chose to streamline its operations to act as “the pivot between the two worlds” of industry and academics, with an eye toward new products and innovations, said Charles Drouin, a spokesman for the council. He said the agency had not moved away from support for fundamental research but wanted to focus such efforts better. “There is basic research, but it is directed, as opposed to undirected as you would find it in universities.”
Another battleground for the future of basic research has been the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a federal granting agency that serves as the first stop for financing fundamental research by Canadian scientists.
In 2011-12, the latest year for which data are available, the council’s “discovery” grants for fundamental research accounted for 38.4 percent of its budget, down from 50.1 percent in 2001-2. Its “innovation” grants, which encourage the transfer of university-developed technology to industry, rose to 31.4 percent in 2011-12, up from 25.3 percent a decade earlier. (The council also directs part of its roughly $1-billion budget to postdoctoral fellowships and other awards for young researchers.)
“The government has invested proportionately more on the innovation side, where it was seen that we had more challenges,” said Pierre J. Charest, vice president of research grants and scholarships at the government agency. He noted that the council was “on track” to double the number of scientists forming partnerships with industry.
Mr. Charest said criticism about a smaller percentage of funds for discovery grants missed a larger point — that the budget had grown over the past decade to almost $325 million in 2012-13. However, much of that increase comes from a special supplement for a select group of researchers to explore potentially transformative concepts.
One who has felt the pinch is Norman Hüner, an internationally recognized plant biochemist and physiologist at the University of Western Ontario, who holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair in environmental-stress biology. A longtime recipient of discovery grants, he and his research collaborators are exploring a potential breakthrough in the use of photosynthesis to trick plants to grow in suboptimal conditions — relevant research in Mr. Hüner’s view, given concerns about climate change.