SCIENCE

Seeking the best

New federal funding gives researchers a boost

BARBARA WICKENS November 20 1989
SCIENCE

Seeking the best

New federal funding gives researchers a boost

BARBARA WICKENS November 20 1989

Seeking the best

SCIENCE

New federal funding gives researchers a boost

According to some estimates, insects ruin up to 30 per cent of some of Canada’s agricultural crops every year. Scientists also estimate that insects destroy up to 85 million cubic yards of timber annually, or about half of Canada’s annual cut. But many successful pesticides— including DDT, which was banned for most agricultural uses in Canada in 1969—have turned out to be harmful to humans and wildlife. Now, under a new, federally funded program, scientists at 10 Canadian universities and three government laboratories will receive more than $9 million over four years to search for environmentally safe methods of controlling insects. Said Gerard Wyatt, a biology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who will head the project: “The funding will enable us to work on a bigger scale and at a higher level.”

The insect-management network was one of 14 programs, involving scientists at scores of Canadian universities, government laboratories and private corporations, singled out for funding under a new $240-million, five-year federal program called Networks of Centres of Excellence. Details of the program were announced last month by William Winegard, minister of state for science and technology, who declared that it would help scientists to “break down barriers between disciplines, ideas and institutions” and “improve industrial competitiveness across Canada.” The networks earmarked for funding ranged from the Ocean Production Enhancement Network, which will explore ways of improving fishery production, to the Respiratory Health Network, which will investigate projects ranging from preventing the spread of bacteria through building ventilation to cures for cystic fibrosis, and the Canadian Network for Space Research to study atmospheric phenomena relating to global climate change and polar ozone depletion.

The program, which is aimed not only at pure research but at funding research into commercial products and processes, received praise from scientists as a major boost for Canadian research and development. Peter Munsche, assistant vice-president of research at the University of Toronto, said that networks linked by telecommunications and computers were an effective way for Canada’s top scientists to work together, despite being separated by the vast distances between the nation’s regions. Said Munsche: “Canada is already a world leader in telecommunications. It’s a very Canadian solution.”

Still, some experts said that the new federal

funding would not be sufficient to alter Canada’s low research-and-development ranking among industrialized nations. In 1987, Canada stood 10th on a list of 11 industrialized nations,

with only 1.4 per cent of its gross domestic product dedicated to research and development, compared with 2.87 per cent for Japan, 2.81 per cent for West Germany and 2.69 per cent for the United States. Only Italy, which spent 1.27 per cent of its GDP on research and development, ranked below Canada. Ottawa’s new funding, said Thomas Calvert, vice-president of research at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, was welcome—but it was “really a drop in the bucket over four or five years. It doesn’t make much of a blip on the graph of Canada’s support for R and D.”

Despite the criticism, the new program will provide badly needed funds for research into some promising—and fascinating—fields of applied science. Highlights:

• A $6.7-million study to find new uses for concrete will link scientists and designers from seven universities and two consulting firms. One participant in the project, James MacGregor, chairman of the civil engineering department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said that scientists will, among other things, look for ways of applying new findings about concrete strength and durability to such major projects as the offshore production platforms that would be needed for production in the Hibernia oilfield off Newfoundland if it goes ahead. Other scientists will explore the possi-

bility of using corrosion-resistant concrete for bridges and highways.

• In a project that will link 20 universities in a study of robotics and intelligent electronic systems, 123 researchers will use $23.8 million to study the application of robots and artificial intelligence in such areas as underground mining and the problem of using robots to paint manufactured articles with irregular shapes. Said Gordon MacNabb, president of PRECARN Associates Inc. in Nepean, Ont., a consortium of 33 companies involved in robotics and artificial-intelligence research: “It’s

hard to think of any part of the economy that won’t be affected by robotics or intelligence systems.”

• In a bacterial diseases study that will receive $18.2 million in funding during a four-year period, 40 researchers at six Canadian universities, Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories Ltd., the Ottawa-based National Research Council and other laboratories will collaborate on 33 separate research projects aimed at halting or reducing the spread of bacterial diseases affecting humans, animals and plants.

The launching of the federal program followed a complex process that pitted Canada’s leading researchers in a rigorous competition for funds. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney first outlined the program in January, 1988. The federal ministry of state for science and technology then asked the three national councils that are in charge of channelling federal research funds, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Medical Research Council, to draw up guidelines for the program and invite proposals. Eventually, a review committee made up of 23 academic, industrial and government experts from Canada, the United States and Europe was established under Stuart Smith, former chairman of the Science Council of Canada. His committee examined 158 proposals submitted by more than 4,000 Canadian researchers.

Choosing among the competing proposals was “extremely difficult,” said Smith, who is now president of RockCliffe Research and Technology Inc., an Ottawa firm that helps to commercialize research. “The country’s best scientists were putting their best feet forward.” The 14 research networks that were finally chosen included more than 500 researchers in the public and private sectors and at 34 participating universities. Smith said he was pleased that Ottawa accepted the committee’s recommendations. “The politicians had reserved the right to make the final decision,” said Smith. “But the government took the list and implemented it.”

The idea of linking scientists in different parts of the country to carry out research projects has had a successful track record in Canada. In 1982, the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Advanced Research was set up as a private, nonprofit corporation to support scientific research. Since then, using $27 million raised from private corporations, foundations and governments, the institute has funded five research programs involving networks of industry, government and university researchers. Inspired by that example, the Ontario government two years ago designated seven provincial Centres of Excellence involving universities and Ontario-based corporations in a $200-million research program. Boris Stoicheff, a University of Toronto physics pro-

fessor emeritus, who is executive director of the Ontario Laser and Lightwave Research Centre, said that provincial funding has already helped to spur the development of a new family of short-wavelength lasers and optical fibres. Ontario is the only province to have established such networks.

Now, Ottawa is clearly hoping that the federal program will yield similar practical results. Still, some observers said that the federal program would do little to correct the fundamental problems that have resulted in low levels of industrial and corporate research in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, of the $7.97 million spent on research and development in Canada last year, Ottawa contributed

about 30 per cent, while the provinces contributed six per cent, corporations 43 per cent, universities 10 per cent, private, nonprofit groups three per cent and foreign sources eight per cent. By contrast, about 50 per cent of the $134 billion spent in 1985 on research and development in the United States was funded by businesses. Michelle Albagli, a coordinator in the communications department of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said that there has been a drastic reduction in the percentage increases that the federal government has given to the universities for research and development. From 1977 to 1983, the money channelled through the three granting councils grew by 15 per cent a year, but from 1983 to 1989, the increases grew by only five per cent a year, she said. Albagli added, “The money for the Networks of Centres of Excellence is a good boost in a period of fiscal restraint, but it does not replace the money that is desperately needed from the three granting councils.”

Part of the problem, said Fraser Mustard,

president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is that Canada has a resource-based economy. Even if governments are willing to spend more on basic scientific research, said Mustard, many Canadian industries simply are not in a position to make use of new discoveries. Yet research has shown, he added, that innovation accounts for 80 per cent of economic growth. As a result, said Mustard, it is crucial to Canada’s future that it develop a strong capacity in science-based innovation.

The concern over Canada’s long-term ability to conduct scientific research was echoed on university campuses. Margarida Krause, a biology professor at the University of New Bruns-

wick in Fredericton, said that it troubled her that the federal program would “distribute funding to so few people and leave others out in the cold.” The level of scientific funding in Canada, said Krause, remained “very, very insignificant. We have to compete internationally and we are at a disadvantage, compared with funding of researchers in the United States.” Dennis Capozza, a University of British Columbia commerce professor, said that if Canada is to be “part of the technological age, then the level of R and D has to go up substantially—unless we want to continue in our traditional, natural-resource role. We all know that natural resources will run out eventually.” As much as scientists welcomed it, Ottawa’s attempt to enlarge Canada’s flagging research effort only served to underscore the pressing need for a more broadly based—and betterfunded—commitment.

BARBARA WICKENS

DEREK WOLFF

JOHN HOWSE

VALERIE MANSOUR