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Globe essay

An R&D machine in need of direction

What are Canada's priorities? Where does the money go? And how to strengthen the 'innovation chain'?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Our country is at a crossroads in determining whether we are content to be a mediocre research player on the global scene, or whether we aspire to excellence. Some of the pressing decisions focus on the level of investment we as a nation are prepared to make, but structural and philosophical decisions that will chart the future of our research and development success may be even more important.

A country invests in R&D believing that investments in researchers and research institutions will result in social and economic benefits to the country and its citizens. Recent media reports that focus on the amount of money individual researchers in universities receive to support their work miss some of the fundamental elements a country must get right to establish a vibrant, healthy and competitive R&D system that will result in public good. These elements are not necessarily about the amount of money, individual researchers or even universities.

There are two fundamental questions about how a country distributes its R&D dollars: One relates to the funding of institutions that support the country's research effort and the other is about targeting funding to national research priorities.

Some research dollars go directly to researchers — predominantly through granting councils such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — to support the direct costs of their investigations, such as buying equipment or hiring research assistants. But the work of these researchers requires a vast, expensive infrastructure, such as the buildings they work in, the power and water they consume, the information technology networks they rely on and the archives and libraries they use.

LEAKY ROOFS

These are the indirect costs of research and are borne by the institutions, such as universities, where these investigators work. Researchers rarely think about these institutional costs — they just assume services will be provided — until the roof of their lab starts to leak, their distilled water stops flowing or they cannot access the Internet from anywhere around the world 24/7. In contrast, university administrators always worry about indirect research funds, because they are the ones responsible for providing this institutional support.

This creates tension between the individual researchers who argue for more direct research funding to themselves and to their labs and the university administrators who petition for more indirect research funding to sustain or expand the required research infrastructure. Both groups appear insatiable. Both groups have legitimate claims.

The question is not who is right, but whether Canada has achieved the right balance between direct and indirect research funding to advance its R&D agenda, in order to optimize the public benefits that should result from it. The answer is that we are not there yet.

Canada did not even have a program to provide indirect costs of research until the mid-1990s. Even now, this program provides Canadian institutions proportionately only about half the funding of their American and British competitors. The Canada Foundation for Innovation was created specifically to bring Canada's research infrastructure up to some reasonable standard, and it has helped. But it is not enough. This is why, for the past several years, presidents of Canadian universities, particularly the most research-intensive ones, have made additional indirect and institutional research support their top-priority request to the federal government.

The recent $2-billion federal Knowledge Infrastructure Program provides funds to universities and colleges for deferred maintenance and renovations of facilities that support R&D. It is exactly what university administrators asked for, obviously to the chagrin of some researchers who would have rather seen funds go to the direct support of their research. The Knowledge Infrastructure Program is critical funding that will improve the infrastructure in universities that supports Canada's R&D. These kinds of programs have little sex appeal. (Who can get wildly enthusiastic over deferred maintenance?) But, as I often remind my colleagues, it is hard to conduct cutting-edge research in a tent or when one has to spread plastic sheeting over expensive equipment when it rains.

NATIONAL PRIORITIES

The other question about the distribution of research funding is this. Many countries, including Japan, Australia and China, have developed a science or research strategy that identifies national research priorities. This policy exercise derives from the realities that you can't excel in everything and that, in the competitive world of research, excellence wins. So, smart research policy involves the identification of a select number of research priorities important to the success of the nation, in which it can become the world-beater.

Canada has been very slow on this front. The 2007 Science and Technology agenda was one of the first serious attempts by the federal government to identify broad priority research areas. The government, to its credit, went further by establishing the Science, Technology and Innovation Council and asking it, as one of its first orders of business, to identify subpriorities where success was particularly critical to Canada's competitiveness, global positioning and economic return. This exercise was long overdue.

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