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IN MY OPINION

Here’s the difference between research and innovation

A Quebec physicist responds to the president of NSERC

By RICHARD MACKENZIE | MAY 19 2015

This spring, Mario Pinto, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, went on a cross-country tour of Canadian universities and colleges to solicit input from academics on the research granting agency’s strategic plan, called NSERC 2020. An open letter to Dr. Pinto will be published in Physics in Canada, Vol. 71, No. 2 (2015); this version is reprinted with permission of the PiC Editor.

Dear Dr. Pinto,

I attended your presentation at the Université de Montréal (April 13, 2015), and I would like to articulate some thoughts that were brewing in my mind but had not yet surfaced during your presentation and the question period that followed.

I was very pleased to hear you describe “discovery” as the foundation – a necessary but not sufficient condition, as you put it – of “innovation,” and also to hear that you emphasize its importance when you meet with politicians and policy-makers. (I put the terms in quotation marks because they do not resonate with me, as I will explain below.)

As you gathered from the question period, many of those in attendance at the meeting (myself included) have the perception that discovery is viewed (by NSERC or the government, or both) as subservient to innovation, so your words were to some extent reassuring. Nonetheless, the original perception seems to be reinforced, and indeed embodied, in NSERC’s vision as stated, among other places, in the online survey soliciting feedback from the research community on NSERC 2020. The statement is  NSERC’s vision is for Canada “to be a global leader in strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum for the societal and economic benefit of Canadians.” This certainly makes it seem as though the ultimate goal of NSERC is economic benefit, and that discovery and innovation are two components of how to get there. (Incidentally, that is why I didn’t fill in the survey when I first became aware of it: the two questions in the survey presuppose that I am in favour of that vision, which is not the case.)

You encouraged your audience at the beginning of the question period to be blunt, and I will allow myself to be so in this letter. Of the 12,000 researchers with NSERC grants, I strongly suspect that the majority of them would consider themselves wholly interested in discovery and only very slightly interested (if at all) in innovation. It therefore strikes me as unsurprising that NSERC’s vision does not resonate with its clients, the researchers. Perhaps this explains, in part, why relatively few researchers have filled in the survey.

I have not yet explained why the terms “discovery” and “innovation” do not resonate with me. I remember being uncomfortable when, more than a decade ago, NSERC’s research grants program was renamed “discovery grants.” I didn’t make much of it at the time, but I always wondered if it was merely a name change or if there was more to it than that. As the word “innovation” crept into the vocabulary of politicians, policy makers and NSERC, I began to wonder whether the renaming was not in fact a subtle first step — perhaps taken unconsciously – in a sort of retooling of NSERC from a research funding agency to something else. The more I think about it, the more I agree with this assessment.

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I feel that NSERC, and/or the government, views discovery and innovation as components of research, so naturally they fall under the purview of NSERC. I have a very different view, one that I suspect is shared by many, if not most, of your clients: that discovery, rather than being a component of research, IS research, while innovation is a completely different activity, one largely concerned with taking scientific discoveries and other ideas and developing useful products out of them. The researcher studies thermodynamics; the innovator develops the toaster. Thus, innovation is in my mind more a synonym of product development than a component of research.

The R in NSERC, of course, stands for research. If, as I contend, innovation is not research, should NSERC therefore get out of the innovation business? I do not necessarily think so, but only for pragmatic reasons: in a hypothetical world, with NSERC focusing entirely on (curiosity-driven, pure) research and with another council focusing on innovation, I fear that research would inevitably suffer at the expense of innovation. This is because most politicians, notwithstanding their verbal support of research/discovery, are more interested in the short-term benefits to the economy implied by innovation than in the long-term benefits to which a solid research foundation would give rise.

Thus I thank you for supporting discovery, or research, or whatever it is called, and I strongly urge you to continue to do so. However, it is hard for me to accept that NSERC truly values research for research’s sake when innovation and economic benefits figure so prominently in its vision.

Dr. MacKenzie holds the title of Professeur titulaire in the physics department at Université de Montréal.

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  1. Phil Hultin / May 20, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Well said! I attended Dr. Pinto’s session in Winnipeg and felt some of the same combination of reassurance and alarm you speak of. Reassurance because he spoke of the importance of research/discovery as distinct from commercial gain. Alarm because he also said that research was meaningless unless and until it emerged into “the marketplace”. Dr. Pinto was quick to add that he did not simply mean the marketplace of dollars, stocks and futures, but also the marketplace of social commerce and ideas. But even so, I found the image unsettling.

    The biggest problem I have with the vision of the strategic plan is that it says nothing at all about how NSERC will actually function to achieve the goals it sets. Having seen how the pre-2009 International Review of the Discovery Grants was perverted in the re-jigging of the DG program, I am very leery of accepting visions that are not supported by step-by-step details on implementation. My career as a scientific researcher was destroyed by the 2009 changes that effectively meant that a mid-career researcher who did not lead a huge team of grad students and postdocs was out of luck. There was no sign that only big players were welcome prior to the “new DG” roll-out, but there are a lot of small-team researchers like me who learned to mistrust “big picture visions”!

    • Nkem Vicent / May 29, 2015 at 9:38 pm

      This information should be circulated highly within the research environment as it is a striking point needing attention. In line with Phil point of “not knowing how NSERC will actually function to achieve the goals it sets”. NSERC like many other funding bodies and university faculty positions in Canada is a game of “who is who in the network instead of contributions and achievements” There is no step-by-step details on implementation and or selection procedures but focus on so call ” best fit” and the best fit remain a game of interest for members in the network. I have come across some many situations in either funded proposals and or faculty positions seeking to know definition of best fit to no aval. In so many cases, the best fit for faculty position turns out to be recent graduates with no publications, no teaching experience, no funding on their own and in the process of becoming professional engineers leaving out some of us who are seasonal faculty members with huge and outstanding publications, teaching experience and funding.

      So many careers as scientific researcher, PDF or professors have been destroyed by this “undefined funding procedures and filling of faculty positions”. In most countries, there is always room for emerging researchers to be funded but here in Canada, young and mid-career researchers have no place and not that they can not delivered but because the network seem not to know them especially those who did not study in Canada. Even those who have been very active leading huge team of grad students and postgraduates students, huge funded projects and out standing track in their field are still out of luck if there are not in the network.

      A point well said by Phil “there are a lot of small-team researchers like me who learned to mistrust “big picture visions”.

      A chance MUST be given to young researchers and PDFs for new faculty position keeping aside NETWORK connection as it is KILLING the educational standards.

      The solution is “Every university should begin to published names of all applicants with their CV, job postings and selected candidates” By doing this the gang of network will be dismantle and create a fair and transparent system for each and every one. The appointment and funding will be a question of merits and NOT MEMBERS of a NETWORK. This is NOT a political party.

  2. John Fallavollita / May 21, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Let’s not forget that Canadian taxpayers through their elected representatives decide what is funded in higher education.

    Universities do not have an automatic “pass” when it comes to educational relevance.

    The historically recent notion that Research is relevant in and of itself is undergoing scrutiny in our society precisely because it may not be affordable.

    Money talks, regrettably.

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