Research funding

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Thu Nov 16 19:22:49 EST 1995

Comments & Questions on Research Funding by
Alex Berezin

Double shevrons ( >> ) : letter by Dr. Paul
Hough, Exec. Director of CFBS (Canad.fed.bilogical

Single shevrons ( > ): Editorial from Globe and Mail 

>> Dear All,
>> Following our science policy discussions last 
>> Saturday, I thought it appropriate to circulate 
>> the editorial that appeared in the Globe and mail
>> on Monday, October 2, 1995. I have yet to 
>> determine who wrote it, but it as refreshing to see 
>> such a clear call for sustaining basic research in
>> Canada's national newspaper. You have probably seen 
>> this editorial, but please share it with your colleagues. 

>> You might also want to refer to it if you have 
>> discussions with local MPs or provincial MLAs, or 
>> whomever.

So, what do you want us to tell "them" (to the 
politicians, MPs, etc) ?
   - Give us more money ?
   - "Reeducate" NSERC and enforce it to abandon its
apartheid policies of "peer review selectivity " ? 

>> Thanks.  Cheers!
>> Paul Hough - Exec. Director, CFBS

> "Basic research is a wise investment" (Globe and Mail,
   October 2, 1995)

>  At a recent get-together for scientists, British astronomer
> Sir Martin Rees pulled out a yellowed document. It was a 1937 
> U.S. government study intended to predict what scientific
> breakthroughs were possible, to be used by agencies to 
> allocate research grants. The study endorsed three promising 
> fields: agriculture, synthetic gasoline and synthetic rubber. 
> But it failed to anticipate antibiotics, nuclear energy, jet 
> engines, rockets, transistors and computers, all of which 
> would become realities within a decade.  Many of those 
> discoveries were not the result of product development efforts,
> but of speculative, theoretical inquiry.

The above has little to do with (grossly overstated) 
distinction between "fundamental" and "applied". 
What it DOES show is the sheer nonsense of ANY peer 
review of ANY proposals [ promises ] (always a futurology,
same reliability as crystal balling).

The ONLY thing which makes sense is to assess the calibre
and capacity of the researcher on the basis of the actual 
(past, not futurological) accomplishements. For as long 
as NSERC sticks to its "proposal evaluations" philosophy 
the system is unfixable by ANY political will.

> As Sir Martin observed, support for "applied" research 
> continues to miss the mark. "The most dramatic and fruitful 
> innovations will still surprise us. They'll be the outcome of 
> some new basic science. Applications that are transforming 
> the way we live are initiated by investments in basic research
> that were modest in relation to their impact."

Hurrah, hurrah ....... 
Fully agree. AND the only way to have it working is to 
fund the RESEARCHERS (not proposals) on the basis of sliding
ranking. Not all will be happy, but at least all will have 
a chance to keep working instead being on salaried 
unemployment rolls ( 1/3 of all canadian university 

> It is a useful lesson for research officials in Canada's
> universities, corporations and governments, who in recent 
> years have devoted more and more of their resources to applied
> research specific products, technologies or methods that have 
> immediate relevance and increasingly less to basic or "pure"
> research, which explores theories and fields of inquiry that 
> are not yet to any immediate need.

Wait a minute ! Who are "they" ? Arn't we live in
a democracy ? ("Any nation has the government it 
deserves"). NSERC constantly claims "We are YOU"
(YOU = Canadian university research community).

So, what was YOUR (community) response to a call 
from CARRF (Canadain Association for Responsible 
Research Funding) to initiate the process of
democratisation and desecretezation of NSERC and
to bring it to a public (not "peer review") 
accountability ?  

The only visible (and massive) response from the
members of the university community was that many 
people  "unsubscribed" to biocan, apparently 
unwilling to stand any criticism of NSERC.

And now apparently some start to crybaby, waiting
for mommy to help.

> The motive is economic, and perfectly understandable.  
> Applied research projects and grants are much easier to 
> justify, as they satisfy immediate goals for Canadian 
> companies.  And those companies are usually willing to 
> contribute through "partnerships," which provide badly
> needed dollars for our universities.       

> Today, most universities have "technology-transfer" offices, 
> which negotiate research partnerships and other collaborations
> with private companies. These arrangements give business 
> low-cost access to publicly funded university professors,
> facilities and laboratories - and often allow companies to 
> patent or copyright the results of their research. When these 
> arrangements work well, they are mutually beneficial to 
> business and academia. When they don't, they are little more 
> than a taxpayer subsidy to industry. Either way, basic 
> research into fundamental questions is neglected for short-term
> gain.

All right, all right. One of our respondents (mixture
of applied and basic research) wrote : "I have to
prostitute myself to remain funded". Yes. it might be
a compromise by at least give you an alley to live by.
Where is my red flashlight ? 

> Over the past 15 years, Canada's grant-giving organizations 
> for science, medicine and engineering all redesigned their 
> policies around a "partnership" model. In its long-term 
> strategy document, the Natural Sciences and Engineering 
> Research Council (NSERC, the federal government's
> research-funding body) calls for research geared to 
> profitmaking potential. 

If NSERC is "us", why "we" didn't help it to
devise the policy reflecting OUR (and science,
and students) interests ? Been too busy 
"unsubscribing" bionet ?

> Partnerships with business "teach, 
> by direct experience, the crucial relationship of research to 
> application and the importance of the transfer of knowledge 
> from the laboratory to the marketplace."  These policies 
> have forced some universities to close their theoretical 
> research labs in order to remain solvent. "We would prefer 
> to continue with pure research," University of Lethbridge 
> president Howard Tennant said recently, "but for the 
> university's survival and to maintain the quality of faculty, 
> we have to move into the area of applied research."

The answer is clear: Nobody will (or even should)
do it for you, unless YOU do it.

> Unfortunately, many of the most important scientific 
> discoveries of our time came out of research initiatives 
> that had no relationship to any immediate application or 
> market. 

"Unfortunately" ? No, I tend to say it very fortunate.
(just think what would happen if the above was true).

> And so it will be with the most important 
> discoveries of the future. To those who look askance at the 
> abstract, almost theological pronouncements of advanced 
> physicists, remember that they could lead to a cleaner more 
> efficient way to turn matter into energy - a discovery that 
> would change the world for the better.

Yes, yes... (1000 times)... But tell this to NSERC.
Will they fund a single dime to Andrew Wiles, who
did not publish a paper for 7 years, because he was
busy proving Fermat Great Theorem (and succeeded).

> Such research is expensive and often has a low success 
> rate. But it holds the greatest long-term promise for profits,
> jobs and unimaginable social benefits.

So, where do we go from here ?

(We need DISCUSSIONS and IDEAS, not passivity
and "unsubscribings").

Alexander A. Berezin, PhD
Department of Engineering Physics
McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L7
tel. (905) 525-9140 ext. 24546

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