19 April 2015

Notes on the NSERC Strategy Consultation

As most in the research community will know the new NSERC President Dr Mario Pinto has launched a consultation process for their new 2020 Strategy. George Brown College hosted a consultation Town Hall for Dr Pinto last week as part of the 20290 Strategy. Dr Pinto was called away at the last moment to attend an event with the Prime Minister, so Bert van den Berg, Director, Colleges, Commercialization & Portfolio Planning at NSERC stepped in to lead the discussion. About 40 attendees convened at our waterfront campus to learn about the NSERC vision and to provide input and comments on shaping this direction. It was a productive discussion from a diverse audience comprised of college, polytechnic and university researches and administrators, as well as many industry partners.

The NSERC 2020 Strategy has this as its goal:

The result is a well-positioned vision for NSERC in 2020 “to be a global leader in strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum for the societal and economic benefit of Canada.”
Our vision is founded on people, the lifeblood of discovery and innovation, and on achieving four strategic goals:
  1. Fostering a science culture in Canada.
  2. Building a diversified and competitive research base through discovery research.
  3. Strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum.
  4. Going global.
Discussion at the Town Hall focused on what this means to firms, as well as college and university researchers who are enablers of this vision. For college and polytechnic applied research, we are focused on the third point of "Strengthening the discovery-innovation continuum," given our focus on innovation. Industry representatives at the Town Hall spoke about the need for NSERC to provide an easy and accessible route for firms to tap into the basic and applied research capacity in Canada - much like the NRC's Concierge service, which van den Berg noted is a key partnership component for all in the research and innovation space. Another question related to the goal of "Going global" focused on the need to support stronger investment, including aiding discoveries to get into the marketplace internationally, as well as firms selling to international markets.

On the notion of getting discoveries to market, Canada has a real challenge here. With leading G8 per capita R&D spending in the public sector but lagging industry R&D spending (the HERD|BERD imbalance), we need to do more to increase academic R&D productivity. As successive expert panels have determined, our rate of return on academic discoveries is poor. We have world leading basic/discovery research labs, yet the worst record in the world for realizing the value of IP generated here in Canada. Part of this involves changing academic culture - orienting tenure and promotion discussions away from publishing first toward a patenting first commercializing second route, and enabling university professors to count this activity as part of the T&P discussion. This happens to some extent now, but until we staunch the flow of ideas flowing out of our porous borders and start protecting and generating value from Canadian IP we will continue to be an exporter of raw materials (ideas) for the rest of the world to commercialize and sell back to us. The latest federal Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy provides good context for all of us involved in the R&D and innovation chain in Canada. It is worth repeating what I wrote then:

There is much to be celebrated about Canada’s world leading basic research. We need more focus on translating this research into practical application for social and economic good. Our negative balance in IP – one of the worst records in the world – should be alarming to any Canadian. Successive expert panels have all said we have a systematic failure in this country to capitalize on the excellent basic research capacity we possess in our world leading research institutions. This failure is two-fold: we do not commercialize inventions effectively, nor does our industry invest in R&D and innovation, thereby offering a poor receptor to the outputs of academic research.

Well-funded basic research is necessary, but not sufficient for a functioning innovation economy. Countries like Canada, with our economy so dependent on resource extraction industries, need to start adding value to the raw resources we extract so we are less dependent on things like the price of oil. Basic research with little or no focus on application or commercialization becomes just one more example of how Canada exports raw commodities (ideas) without adding value (commercialization of these ideas). We can no longer afford this.  

The new NSERC 2020 Strategy offers all of us - researchers and administrators from both basic and applied research institutions - an opportunity to provide input as to how to achieve a healthy balance between the necessary components of a well functioning R&D system. I would add to this the requisite industry contribution - experimental development - which often gets overlooked in the (at times overly partisan) discussion about research funding in Canada. My challenge to the research community is to use this opportunity to provide input to NSERC, and to promote collaborative efforts, not to swing like simians from one branch of the tree, but rather to understand that the tree is part of a forest. Let's evolve our thinking, on R&D, innovation, and supply and demand for a world leading economy.

And speaking of NSERC, student researchers in our FedDev funded Green Building Centre have been named a runner up in the NSERC Science! Action! video contest. Their video on the Home Retrofit Guide was produced by and stars the students and is a great view into what applied research looks like from the student perspective. Congratulations to Eleanor Martinez and the entire Building Science research team.  Check it out below!

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