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.
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.