Anticipating the Report of Canada's Expert R&D Panel

Polanyi Stamp

I was happy today to learn that Canada Post issued a stamp honoring my Toronto colleague and Nobel Laureate John Polanyi. The stamp is issued as part of the celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. This bit of good news tempered the alarming developments across the ocean where actions by the EPSRC appear to be destroying the scientific fabric of the UK. Here in Canada, despite an anomalous 2011 Discovery Grants competition for math/stats and recent news that some of my colleagues’ appeals were rejected, I hope to soon hear good news from the Expert R&D Panel which will hopefully reset Canada’s priorities and shore up support for basic research. The original vision of NSERC (supporting research at universities) is quite different from today’s gallimaufry of industrial Research Partnership Programs which are taking away money from Discovery Grants and basic research in general.

The report of the six member R&D panel is forecasted to arrive sometime in October. UBC’s Nassif Ghoussoub reports that “all eyes are on” David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto. Ghoussoub’s post encouraged me to spend some time reviewing some of President Naylor’s opinion pieces looking for insights into his perspectives on research policy. Here are some extractions I found encouraging:

Summer 2011: Meeting Global Challenges

“We cannot afford to fall behind. Higher education and advanced research in today’s world has a massive impact that extends into every other field of human endeavor. And Canada must have universities that can do two related things: conduct the advanced research that will help surmount the grand challenges that humanity now faces, and offer the best and brightest students an education that will help them build a more successful nation and a better world. No university in Canada is better positioned to meet those objectives.”
Spring 2008: The Topography of Innovation
“…governments should fund basic research more generously. From lasers to Teflon, countless economically important advances have piggybacked on basic research. And in regions where Nobel Prize winners congregate in great universities, knowledge-based industries flourish in a wonderfully synergistic relationship.”

“Canadians are efficient at turning dollars into research but inefficient at turning research into dollars. Commercialization is not the enemy of fundamental research; nor is the converse true. However, it is wrong headed to insist that granting councils and research agencies constantly look downstream to the marketplace when their sights are justifiably set upstream on knowledge generation. Instead, we need dedicated commercialization agencies and infrastructure.”

Summer 2009: Universities and the Innovation Economy

“Unfortunately, one still hears grumbling about overspending on “irrelevant” basic research. The last hundred years have shown us time and again that basic research, driven by curiosity and arbitrated by peer review, is absolutely essential to human progress – and its practical impacts are totally unpredictable.”

“We should also be clear about what universities don’t do. Commercialization happens in companies, not in universities. To be sure, universities can collaborate more often and more effectively with industrial partners. We can try to ensure a strong outflow of well-protected intellectual property with interesting potential. And we should promote a culture of civic engagement and entrepreneurship among our students and trainees. The University of Toronto is taking positive action on all those fronts. But the onus in commercialization rests squarely on the private sector.”

I also found a lot of discussion explaining that, on all metrics, Toronto is an outstanding University. President Naylor also presented detailed comparisons showing how American, British (this might have changed recently), and European grants cover the “indirect costs of research” at much higher levels than Canadian grants. Indirect costs are very important but appear to be harder to sell to policy makers than, say, research institutes in vulnerable ridings.

In addition to developing the method of infrared chemiluminescence, Professor Polanyi has made many insightful statements concerning science policy. These three are especially relevant right now:

(Concerning the allocation of research funds) “It is folly to use as one’s guide in the selection of fundamental science the criterion of utility. Not because (scientists)… despise utility. But because. .. useful outcomes are best identified after the making of discoveries, rather than before.”
— Speech to the Canadian Society for the Weizmann Institute of Science, Toronto (2 Jun 1996)
“Faced with the admitted difficulty of managing the creative process, we are doubling our efforts to do so. Is this because science has failed to deliver, having given us nothing more than nuclear power, penicillin, space travel, genetic engineering, transistors, and superconductors? Or is it because governments everywhere regard as a reproach activities they cannot advantageously control? They felt that way about the marketplace for goods, but trillions of wasted dollars later, they have come to recognize the efficiency of this self-regulating system. Not so, however, with the marketplace for ideas.”
— Quoted in Martin Moskovits (ed.), Science and Society, the John C. Polanyi Nobel Lareates Lectures (1995)
“At one time, it would have been thought mistaken to suggest that scientists meddle in politics. Today, it would be shameful to deny that they have this responsibility.”
Hope lies in the scientific method, The Globe and Mail 2009-05-29