Education

MOMENTUM LOST

Ottawa’s dithering threatens to kill research projects all across the country, PAUL WELLS writes

PAUL WELLS November 22 2004
Education

MOMENTUM LOST

Ottawa’s dithering threatens to kill research projects all across the country, PAUL WELLS writes

PAUL WELLS November 22 2004

MOMENTUM LOST

Education

Ottawa’s dithering threatens to kill research projects all across the country, PAUL WELLS writes

PAUL WELLS

“I’M A LITTLE AFRAID,” Robert Lacroix, the rector of the Université de Montréal, said in an interview. “We don’t seem to be on the radar screen any more.”

Lacroix was in Ottawa on Nov. 4 to give a speech about the astonishing investment the federal government has made in university research since 1997—and to warn he’s afraid the momentum is fading. Paul Martin’s new government “has not yet clearly stated its position on university research funding and its innovation strategy for the next few years,” Lacroix told a breakfast crowd. “The last Speech from the Throne was vague on the question.”

And Martin’s new emphasis on commercialization of research, rushing ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace, unnerves Lacroix because he thinks it could threaten labs that have barely been opened and whose long-term research projects aren’t yet ready for the market.

Little of this will sound particularly novel— “stakeholder complains about funding” is hardly a novel storyline in Ottawa—unless you know a bit about the recent history of federal funding for the knowledge economy. It’s grown at astonishing speed. It has left administrators at Canada’s big research universities almost giddy with joy. It has had concrete and demonstrable benefit for Canada’s economy.

And now a few people wonder whether the bundle of policies that are together called “the innovation agenda” are getting lost amid all the Martin government’s myriad other priorities. “I think there’s uncertainty,” another of the country’s top university presidents said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And uncertainty, in this environment, is trouble. No news is not good news.”

‘I THINKtheres uncertainty,’ said one university president. ‘And uncertainty, in this environment, is trouble.’

And good news is what Canada’s researchers had been growing used to. Beginning with the establishment of the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 1997, the federal government has spent billions of dollars in physical infrastructure, grants for research, a Canada Research Chairs program that pays the salaries of hundreds of university researchers across the country, and assorted other costs of research.

Canada’s journalists have let most of this activity go sailing over their heads. The Liberals’ innovation agenda is rarely a topic of debate in Parliament. But the academic community is sitting up and taking notice. The latest issue of the journal The Scientist put five Canadian universities in its Top 10 Best Places to Work in Academia (outside the United States, which The Scientist considers as a separate category), Canada’s best performance ever. The University of Toronto and the University of Alberta ranked first and second, ahead of the University of Dundee in Scotland.

But research is a long-term investment and other countries are at least as obsessed with improving their research and innovation performance as Canada is, Lacroix says. China passed Canada last year, and Italy this year, in the production of scientific research papers. In 2001, the Chrétien government set a goal of moving from 15th to fifth place among OECD member nations in terms of research spending by 2010. Lacroix said so far Canada has risen to 11th.

And what became of Canada’s innovation agenda? It’s had to wait, like so much else in Ottawa, for the Liberals to fight an election and then get over their shock at nearly losing. “From December to June, not a single piece of paper seems to have moved anywhere at Industry Canada,” one government insider said.

The federal government’s own website dedicated to innovation has been only sporadically updated since Allan Rock and Jane Stewart, former ministers in Jean Chretien’s government, produced an “innovation strategy” in 2002. Sources say that strategy—the fruit of two years of consultation with experts in universities and the private sector—was not part of the mountain of paper that landed on David Emerson’s desk when he became the new industry minister after the federal election in June.

Confusion, as observers of this government are learning, is not the same as a lack of commitment. As finance minister during the Chrétien years, Martin was a key advocate for the investment in university research, along with then-industry minister John Manley and Eddie Goldenberg, Chretien’s main policy adviser. “From all I’ve seen, the commitment remains intact,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan and chairman of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Ralph Goodale, Martin’s finance minister, could hardly be more categorical: “I will be absolutely looking, as every one of my predecessors has done since 1993, for ways to enhance the innovation agenda, budget after budget after budget,” he said. “It is so patently the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want to see that momentum turned back.”

IT took three years to set up these facilities, and just when they’re reaching their maximum productivity, it all ends’

Neither would John Bergeron. But for Bergeron the matter is more urgent.

Bergeron is director of the Montreal Proteomics Network and chair of the department of anatomy and cell biology at McGill University. He’s also the elected president of the Human Proteome Organization, a worldwide association of researchers devoted to studying the crucial role of proteins in regulating the body’s activities. And in a few weeks, he expects to send layoff notices to about 50 immensely skilled researchers because he can’t get his federal funding renewed. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” Bergeron said.

Bergeron and his colleagues won about $43 million in 2001 from a bewildering array of federal agencies to identify every protein in mammal cells and catalogue their interactions. He assembled a world-class team of researchers and began producing an impressive volume of research. Then in August he was informed that there was simply no mechanism for renewing its grant, which will run out next March.

“It took the last three years to set up these facilities and just when they’re reaching their maximum productivity, it all ends,” said Bergeron’s colleague Sean Taylor. Taylor’s increasingly frantic calls to Ottawa for bridge funding, so Bergeron’s team can stay together while the government figures out what to do next, have not produced any answers.

So it’s a strange situation Canada’s researchers find themselves in. One of the architects of the innovation agenda, Paul Martin, is running the government. His finance minister has his marching orders to keep the momentum going. But researchers are on tenterhooks wondering whether they will be able to keep projects going that have barely begun to reach their potential. “We cannot live in an unstable, insecure environment,” Heather Munroe-Blum, the principal of McGill University, said. “We will simply lose people.” IÏI