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University research and NSERC: securing a healthy base.

Universities are being challenged to make a greater contribution to Canadian society

1993 will mark the 15th anniversary of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) as a separate agency.

As most chemists probably know, it was Robert Ruttan at McGill University who, as Chair of the Honourary Advisory Council for Scientific Research, paved the way for the creation of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in 1916.

Another McGill chemist (both a graduate and a former professor), Edgar Steacie, formally established the NRC Office of Grants and Scholarships which later became NSERC. The existence of a strong and vibrant research culture in Canadian universities owes much to Steacie's influence, and his philosophy underpins much of current NSERC programming.

In its modern form, NSERC is a departmental corporation that receives its funding from the Parliament of Canada and reports to it through the minister for science. The Council has a governing body of 22 members who establish policies and make decisions on programs. The role of NSERC, as defined by Council is: * To secure a healthy research base in universities and, as a corollary, to secure a sound balance between the diversified research base and the more targeted research programs; * To secure an adequate supply of highly qualified personnel who have been well educated in basic science as well as trained with state-of-the-art facilities; and * To facilitate collaboration between R&D performing sectors in Canada.

NSERC carries out its role through the awarding of research grants and scholarships, mainly, but not exclusively, to researchers in Canadian universities and affiliated institutions. Council receives advice from standing committees and grant and scholarship selection committees on which sit over 500 members of the science and engineering research community in Canada. For 1992-93, NSERC has an overall budget of $463 million (excluding funds for Network of Centres of Excellence). The allocations are shown in Fig. 1 and 2.

NSERC currently provides grants to over 7,000 university appointees. If other beneficiaries are included - NSERC scholarship and fellowship holders, and those undergraduate and graduate students, research associates and technicians paid from research grants - the figure swells to over 20,000. This is a large and diverse community with wide ranging needs and interests. The situation is not made easier by the expectations of governments, who provide the funds, for tangible returns from investments in science and engineering research within a relatively short time frame.

University research

under review

For the past decade, universities have been under considerable pressure due to increasing enrolments and budgetary constraints. Recent studies carried out on behalf of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Engineering have urged that significant changes take place in the university research enterprise. Universities are being challenged to make a greater contribution to Canadian society. The source of much of this pressure is not hard to identify. In contrast with a strong and vibrant research community, in our universities, Canada's industrial research infrastructure remains poorly developed. In the 1992 World Competitiveness Report, a ranking of 22 industrialized and 14 newly industrialized countries, Canada had dropped from fifth place to eleventh place. The does not augur well for the future. It threatens our ability to compete globally and to provide challenging employment for graduates in science and engineering.

One thing is certain. Without the solid participation of university researchers, many of Canada's pressing economic, environmental and health problems will not get resolved and our future prosperity will be compromised. And, in a tight fiscal environment, the universities' share of the public purse can only diminish if they are not seen as contributing enough to the resolution of some of these problems.

Participation does not mean that university researchers should sacrifice or compromise their own research interests - in fact, it is excellence and leadership in a wide range of research areas which Canada needs most. What it does mean is that universities will have to show even more generosity with their specialized knowledge and expertise. Researchers will have to communicate the potential of their discoveries to a wider audience. Universities will have to be more concerned about the employment or lack of employment of their graduates - leadership will be needed to influence demand in areas of importance to Canada. Collaborative links within disciplines and with other sectors must increase and universities must become better attuned to the industrial, environmental and health proprieties of the country.

Challenges for NSERC

It is within the above context that I see NSERC evolving with its programs during this decade. While quality, based on peer review, remains the overriding criterion for the evaluation of applications, programs must be reviewed to ensure that they are consistent with public expectations and with national S&T objectives. The key to this for NSERC is to maintain a careful balance between programs that allow complete flexibility in choice of research topic or approach, and those that are structured to encourage researchers to contribute to research in defined fields of strategic interest. Finally, as a publicly-funded agency we have to tell the public about the results from our support and about the nature of our activities. There is no magic button for technology transfer and training. Creation of a dynamic, entrepreneurial research enterprise and culture is a complex undertaking that defies easy modelling or planning in any traditional economic or political sense.

The shape of the future

In response to the growing complexity of research and the demand for multidisciplinary approaches, NSERC will launch a Collaborative Project Grant program in 1993-94. The program's objectives are to encourage and support collaborative research within and between disciplines and to provide trainees with experience in collaborative research. The program will serve the same community,, that has traditionally accessed what used to be called the Operating Grants (now Research Grants) program.

The Council is also committed to a fairer allocation of funds between disciplines, one more firmly biased to discipline excellence and need. Currently, allocation adjustments are done in a black box, with little input or guidance from the research community. What is proposed in its place is a formalized set of criteria and measures on which allocation adjustments can be based. Possible factors might include periodic international reviews of quality in the discipline, the surplus or shortage of graduates in the field, etc. Developing the system and weighting the criteria will not be easy; on this, we welcome advice from the community. As in all new initiatives, we are committed to a consultative approach and gradual change. The new allocation system will be eased in over several grant competition cycles, and initially will probably not even be noticed by most grant recipients.

Projected shortages of graduates in a number of key fields and temporary surpluses in others are a major concern. Beginning this year, the Council introduced adjustments to the allocation of postgraduate scholarships; more in engineering, computer science, mathematics and the physical sciences; and fewer in the life sciences. NSERC also decided to adopt "training of highly, qualified personnel' as a common criterion for all of its grants programs. The Council has also recently introduced significant program and policy changes to encourage the involvement of more women in university research and training activities. To help develop the receptor capacity of industry, NSERC is increasing the number of industry-based awards within its industrial Research Fellowships program.

New partnership programs are also close to implementation. One such program, Request for Applications, will build on existing structures such as the industry Science and Technology Canada (ISTC.) sectoral campaigns and aims to attract partners from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Canadian industries would be called upon to identify research areas of particular interest to them. NSERC would hold national competitions for academic researchers with the right match of expertise and qualifications who may, wish to submit proposals for research in those areas.

NSERC would co-administer the program with interested industrial partners. Funds would be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis. It is anticipated that such programs will, in the long term, stimulate increased in-house research within industry.

NSERC will also explore the possibility of developing new kinds of partnerships with other federal and provincial departments and agencies. Already, the Networks of Centres of Excellence are good examples of collaboration between the three granting councils. different levels of government, universities and the private sector. The program is of limited duration (four years) and is currently being reviewed. It is hoped that the results of the evaluation will justify the program's continuation as the linkages, networking and training environments it promotes are very valuable.

Finally, the financial demands of Big Science proposals will also need to be addressed. NSERC believes that Canada must be involved in some projects, yet at the same time we must be selective in our choice of projects and international partners. The Council is committed to the principle that Big Science cannot take place at the expense of the many smaller yet equally important science and engineering projects it supports. Council's recently developed policy on Big Science is an attempt to begin to resolve these issues.

The preceding agenda will make demands on the goodwill of the entire research community. it is my firm belief that the university community is equal to the task. The NSERC system can accommodate a wide range of choices by university engineers and scientists - from the most theoretical to the most directed areas of research. By maintaining a careful balance between the various types of research, by focusing on consensus-building, particularly on discipline allocations and expensive facilities, and by talking to the public, the research community can maximize its effectiveness. By presenting a united front, chances are improved that, down the line, governments will took more favourably on the universities' need for more funding for research in science and engineering.

Michael J. McGlinchey, FCIC, professor of chemistry, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.
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Title Annotation:Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
Author:Morand, Peter
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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