Shift in research funding

In Canada there has been a relatively recent shift in research funding, with more emphasis on applied, industry-driven research and less on basic, exploratory research. This shift has some researchers concerned about the future state of Canadian research and what effect it might have on the country’s level of innovation.

While this shift is not exclusive to any one particular organization or group, the National Research Council’s own shift in research funding was clearly illustrated in an August 11 Globe and Mail article on NRC president John McDougall.

“We’re investing most of our assets in a race that might start in Canada, but ends in another country. It’s not that we don’t do good things, it’s that we’re exporting raw technology, and people,” said McDougall.

According to the article, McDougall wants to see a better “return” on the close to $1 billion in funding the federal government invests each year in NRC.
In order to achieve this, the Globe reported McDougall is moving NRC away from pure “curiosity research” toward projects with clear business applications that have the potential to boost the Canadian economy.
In an email response to the Gradzette, Shaileen Stanley, NRC media relations officer, wrote the NRC is “evolving to keep up with the needs of the country.”

Stanley also wrote that basic research remains a key component of the NRC’s research activities.

“The NRC is redirecting some of its activities in areas of national importance that will support innovation by Canadian industry and economic development overall,” she concluded.

Chris Eliasmith, Canada Research Chair in theoretical neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, said this shift in Canada’s research funding has been most noticeable in the last four or five years.

“This is a terrible shift that will ironically damage the ability of Canada to be innovative,” said Eliasmith.

“A lot of this is done under the moniker of innovation, but there has been work done to see where done innovation actually come from in an economy,” he continued, “and typically it’s research that happens about 10 years or more before some [ . . . ] new product is generated.”

“It’s not that there should be no interaction between industry and research. I think that’s perfectly fine, especially for some domains. The problem has been with the enormous amount of the shift.”

Eliasmith believes the private sector should be funding industry-driven research. In recent years, however, the amount of money companies have invested in research and development has been decreasing.

“It’s been decreasing recently precisely because they know the government’s paying for it,” said Eliasmith.

CBC News recently reported Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is asking Canada’s private sector to invest more funds into research and development.
“Quite frankly, we have unacceptably low levels of support for R&D and innovation in many parts of the Canadian private sector,” said Flaherty.

“Despite this global reality, Canada still lags other nations in overall business expenditures on R&D. At the same time, R&D spending by business in Canada has actually been decreasing in real terms since 2006.”

Flaherty said government, academic and private non-profit groups increased their R&D spending between 2006 and 2009, while at the same time there was a decrease in R&D spending by Canadian businesses when adjusted for inflation.

Eliasmith said he wouldn’t suggest one type of research is more important than the other, but emphasized basic research won’t be funded by the private sector.

“I think [basic research] is where public funds should be directed because the benefits are highly unknown. It’s very uncertain, but the benefits are generally very broadly based, so there are societal benefits.”

Eliasmith said it is not in companies’ interests to fund “risky” basic research — especially when it could be 10 or more years before the broad-based applications of this research are realized.

“It is in [companies’] interest to fund profitable research. Profitable research means guaranteed profits,” explained Eliasmith. “It doesn’t mean maybe profits if we’re lucky.”

Eliasmith believes this shift in research funding — that is, more emphasis on applied, industry-driven research — is short sighted and leads to stagnation.
“The tragic thing is professors at universities have got to get money for their research,” said Eliasmith.

As a result, Eliasmith said professors’ research is going to be short-term focused and driven by industrial interests.

Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research) for the University of Manitoba, believes any distinction between basic and applied research is artificial.
The two types of research cycle into onto another, said Jayas, and funding one inevitably means funding the other.

“Basic research leads to applications, but when you are applying [research] that generates other basic questions. They feed each other in both directions.”
“Anybody who does research does it with purpose in mind,” he continued. “So, theoretically, you can say all research is applied.”

The difference, he said, is whether is applied the next year or in many years from now.

“Eventually anything you do would be used for the benefit of society.”
Kimalee Phillip, Canadian Federation of Students graduate students’ representative, said students will be negatively affected by what she called the “commercialization agenda.”

“Within this commercialization agenda, [ . . . ] students are going where the funding is,” Phillip said. “What that does is limit our freedom, because instead of engaging in critical research that is necessary and important, we are basing our research paradigms on a funding model that is not healthy.”

Eliasmith believes this shift is going to make graduate studies less interesting.
“The reason I went into graduate research was to try to discover something nobody knew before, or look for the exciting cutting edge problem that was incredibly challenging.”

He compared a graduate student conducting industry-driven research to an undergrad student working toward their degree.

“Often undergraduate degrees are the kinds of things you get in order to guarantee that you can get a job in a particular industry doing something. [This shift] is going to turn graduate research into something like that, which I think is unfortunate.”

From the October 2011 Gradzette