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NSERC’s big plans for the next five years – funds pending

A Q&A with president Mario Pinto on the funding agency’s new strategic plan.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | JAN 19 2016

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When Mario Pinto was appointed president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council in the fall of 2014, the agency had already embarked on a process of setting a new strategic plan. Dr. Pinto jumped right in, crisscrossing the country and meeting with academics, students and administrators to chart a new path for the funding agency. The result of that exercise was made public in December as NSERC 2020: A Strategic Plan.

As one of Canada’s three major funding councils, NSERC has a budget of $1.1 billion, which goes to support the research of some 11,000 professors and 30,000 students in the natural sciences and engineering. In five years’ time, Dr. Pinto, who was previously vice-president of research at Simon Fraser University, foresees an agency that will have “a greater appreciation” for diversity and alternate career paths among the researchers it funds, and one with stronger global ties. He recently spoke with University Affairs about how the agency plans to get there.

University Affairs: The strategic plan sets out five goals. The first one is to better promote science and engineering. Why is this necessary?

Dr. Pinto: I felt very strongly that we [need to have] an understanding of science in the general public, and have the general public and the K-12 sector serve as our advocates with policymakers. As well, they need to be able to judge what’s valid and what’s not valid in claims that they read every day in the media. The third purpose is to recruit young people into careers in science and engineering, knowing full well that we have difficulty in recruiting young girls into engineering and physical sciences in particular.

UA: How would it achieve this?

Dr. Pinto: Currently, we are involved in a program called PromoScience. We fund different groups ­– the proposals are peer reviewed – to go and promote science [among young people] in various communities. It’s a fairly modest program at the moment. We realized that we have to give that a higher profile.

UA: A second goal was to help early-career scientists launch their research careers. Efforts to overhaul the funding programs of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research caused quite a bit of controversy. Are you worried the same thing could happen as NSERC tries to revamp its funding process?

Dr. Pinto: We are not suggesting revamping our funding process. For the last five years, since we changed our architecture in the Discovery Grants Program, NSERC has had stability. For example, we have the same success rates now and we fund the same number of researchers. Unfortunately, we have had the same average grant over the last five years as well. So, clearly, we have stability in our system but what we have to do is increase the level of grants.

Coming back to early-career researchers, we’re talking about getting people into their first faculty position. If we look across the country in the natural sciences and engineering, the average age of starting an independent research career is now 35. In the CIHR community, it’s 42 – the age of our prime minister. This is ridiculous because you are wasting the most innovative years of these highly skilled and highly trained individuals. If we look at our faculty who are funded by NSERC under the age of 36, we only have eight percent; one percent of women. This is atrocious.

UA: Has this problem always existed or is it getting worse?

Dr. Pinto: It goes in cycles. This one has been exacerbated by the abolition of mandatory retirement…This occurred for the last time in large proportion in the early ’80s. At that time NSERC came up with a program called the University Research Fellowships Program, which was a brilliant program to bridge [new PhDs] to upcoming retirements. We don’t have mandatory retirement in 2015, but we can still bridge to upcoming retirement positions and that’s precisely what we have proposed to provide. At the same time, we recognize that only 20 percent of those PhDs will go into academia, so we’ve also proposed a system of innovation fellows to take advantage of the entrepreneurial skills of our new breed of PhDs. They will be able to start up their own companies or work in industry or in government labs or go back and forth between government labs, industry and university.

UA: But it depends on new funding from the government?

Dr. Pinto: Absolutely. We cannot afford to do that at the moment.

UA: Is there a specific amount you are looking for?

Dr. Pinto: Not at the moment. But we are in discussion with government over the possibility.

UA: Another goal is to increase diversity within science and engineering. Several engineering schools have recently reported that for the first time their incoming classes consist of 50 percent women. Despite these gains, is this still a challenge?

Dr. Pinto: I think it’s still a challenge. There are several problems. In the life sciences, we certainly don’t suffer from recruiting women. It’s 70 percent in that case. But the problem is that, as they go through their careers, there’s a crossover point and by the time they get to assistant professor, they are down to 25 percent. In the physical sciences and engineering, it’s about 25 to 30 percent at the beginning and they wind up at about the same ratio at the assistant professor level. So there is an issue of progress through the ranks.

At the front end, I still think we aren’t doing well enough at recruiting girls and young women into the physical sciences and engineering. We have to do better. And then downstream we have to do a much better job of recognizing diversity in career paths and non-linear career paths of individuals coming back to work, taking breaks in their careers, etc. And that doesn’t just pertain to women. It pertains to recognition of people who have gone into industry, for example, and want to come back into academia.

UA: How do you propose to increase diversity?

Dr. Pinto: Really, it comes down to a system of education – educating people about how to evaluate different types of contributions from different institutions, different groups. Of course, Aboriginal Canadians are not well represented either. We have to do a lot of work there. I think it comes down to sensitivity about diversity and the fact that providing equality of opportunity does not necessarily run counter to research excellence.

UA: Another goal advocates building closer ties between faculty and industry, and in fostering discovery as well as innovation. This is always controversial. Your progress report mentioned that in the consultation phase you heard from those who felt that there was too much emphasis placed on innovation over discovery. Could this be a potential landmine for you?

Dr. Pinto: I don’t think so. The sensitivity I think has been because of limited funding. When there is limited funding, people automatically get entrenched and they look at how one could divide the pie. My objective, and certainly NSERC’s, is not to divide the pie but very simply to grow the pie. Coupled with that, I was very active in explaining that discovery and innovation should not be treated as two solitudes. It’s a false dichotomy. In fact, there’s a flow that goes between the two and that’s the most healthy system one could have, where innovators and industrial partners have a very good knowledge of what people are working on in general.

Moving from invention to innovation is a complex endeavor. The onus is on us to provide [researchers with] the tools so that they can exploit that in the most efficient way possible and with the same rigour that one would dedicate to scholarly inquiry. And the best way to do that is to have people from industry who know the territory, who are fully plugged in to be the advisors.

UA: It seems over the past few years the government’s done quite a bit to fund innovation and, some would argue, at the expense of research.

Dr. Pinto: Some of the funding has been directed, admittedly. In budget 2014, the funds were directed to partnerships but the budget before was dedicated to discovery. But these have been small increases. At NSERC the Discovery Grants budget has been increased steadily over the past 20 years. So it’s not true that moneys have been shifted out of discovery into partnership. That budget has been protected. But, it isn’t enough because of inflationary costs, because of the costs of doing research. So what we have to do is boost that level. … Typically NSERC would get $15 million [budgetary increase a year] and it is much appreciated. But really that incremental increase is just not enough to remain competitive globally.

UA: The last goal is to increase Canada’s participation in international research endeavors. What do you have in mind?

Dr. Pinto: With a country of 35 million it’s highly unlikely that we will have all of the knowledge necessary to make dramatic advances. At the moment, with 0.5 percent of the world’s population we generate five percent of the scientific publications. That’s outstanding, but what about the other 95 percent? What we are advocating is to build on our strengths but to admit that we have gaps and that the best way to move forward is to bridge those gaps in a very concerted fashion, either bilaterally or multi-laterally with other countries. This is our attempt to go global – but until we have substantial and sustained funding, it’s not going to be possible to have skin in the game.

This is interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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