NSERC Rethink: Engage Grants Illustrates Mission Drift

The Globe and Mail recently posted a story entitled “Building partnerships between businesses and universities” which highlights NSERC’s Engage Grants Program. Following the article, there appears an attribution I don’t usually see in The Globe:

Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.
I found this a bit strange so I followed the link and found the mission statement of BDC.ca:
Our mission Help create and develop Canadian businesses through financing, venture capital and consulting services, with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Our vision Accelerate entrepreneurs' success.

In fact, we’re solely dedicated to Canadian entrepreneurs. We have a nationwide team helping more than 29,000 businesses reach their full potential.

The Engage program is now three years old. NSERC President Suzanne Fortier has characterized the program as providing funds for academic-industrial “first dates”. The Globe article contains an anecdote on one (reportedly among 240 to date [Correction: there are now over 1000 Engage grants.]) academic researcher who is having fun “making lane changes”. NSERC Vice President for Partnership Programs Janet Walden’s assertion that the program is “win-win” for business and academic sectors is not justified with any statistics or summary facts about the program as a whole. Not everyone sees it this way but the businesses helped by BDC probably like the Engage program a lot. Who wins?

[caption id=“attachment_670” align=“alignright” width=“261” caption=“NSERC President Suzanne Fortier”][/caption]

Consider the details of the Engage program:

  • NSERC provides $25K of taxpayer funds to pay for a six-month research and development project between a university researcher and a company already involved in research and development.
  • The company is not required to invest any money on the project.
  • Any intellectual property developed by the project is owned by the company. There is no direct return back to taxpayers on their investment.
  • NSERC has not revealed conversion rates of Engage grants into Collaborative Research and Development program grants. Why?

Meanwhile, 240 1000 Engage grants, each costing $25K, bleed 6 25 Million dollars away from other NSERC programs like the Discovery Grants which support basic research by Canada Research Chairs and other university researchers. NSERC’s foray into business development should be contrasted with the Council’s original mission:

"...encourage excellence in research; provide a base of advanced knowledge in the universities; assist in the selective concentration of research activities; aim for a regional balance in scientific capability; maintain a basic capacity for research training; encourage curiosity-oriented research; and encourage research with a potential contribution to national objectives. ... these objectives are intended ... to ensure long-term coherence in the federal system of university research granting." (Honourable Hugh Faulkner, then Minister of State for Science and Technology, during the opening comments of the second reading of Bill C-26.)
[caption id="attachment_637" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Panel Chair Tom Jenkins, Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear, Arvind Gupta, Monique F. Leroux and Nobina Robinson (Not shown are panel members David Naylor and Bev Dahlby)"][/caption]

With Engage and other programs aimed at building academic-industrial partnerships, the current leadership has drifted away from NSERC’s core mission. This “mission drift” at NSERC was highlighted (see page 128 in the PDF version or follow this link) in the Review of Federal Support to Research and Development produced by the federal R&D panel chaired by Tom Jenkins (who was recently appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada):


The granting councils have played a pivotal role in developing both talent and ideas for Canada’s innovation agenda. Their core raison d’être has been and remains investigator-initiated research of both a basic and applied nature, and each needs to continue to be generously supported. However, there has been mission drift for the granting councils, as they have responded to pressure from government to be more business facing.

By excogitating the recommendations of the expert panel report, Minister Goodyear and Prime Minister Harper are poised to lead Canada’s research and development enterprise back to the launch pad: basic research; dream big.