Posted on the Nature News blog on 14 October 2011.
In an effort to address Canada’s problem with innovation, an independent panel has recommended a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council (NRC).
Study after study has shown that Canada’s businesses invest less on R&D, relative to the country’s gross domestic product, than those of many other OECDcountries and, unlike others, has actually decreased its spending over the last decade. Many of these business investments include government support in the form tax credits, training programs, or grants.
In an effort to make the best use of the government’s investments the six-member expert panel developed six broad recommendations include appointing a Minister of Innovation and creating the Industrial Research and Innovation Council (IRIC).
According to the panel’s report, to be released on 17 October, the proposed IRIC would be an arm’s-length funding agency to help entrepreneurs bring ideas to the marketplace. Under the plan, the council would focus on business-driven support by expanding some existing programs, such as the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which offers advice and funding to support high-risk R&D, while cutting the tax credits available for business R&D. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the granting agency that funds a large portion of Canadian scientists, but which also hosts a number of business-related support programs, would instead focus its innovation investments on projects housed within universities.
The panel’s recommendations also include breaking up the NRC by sending those of its member institutes that are engaged in more basic research to universities where their funding would be managed by NSERC and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The institutes undertaking more applied, industry-oriented research would be rolled into a non-profit research organization, overseen by the IRIC. These proposed changes parallel previous reports that the NRC would focus on industry-driven research.
When the report is released on Monday, the response is likely to be mixed. Some will favour the streamlining of multiple programs and greater direct support to R&D. Others will likely be concerned about the fate of the researchers, facilities and research at the various NRC instittutes.
Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, says folding NRC’s basic research institutes into universities could boost output, but that it will be challenging to implement, especially if the laboratory isn’t located on campus. “It can be difficult to get independent researchers to rally around a specific scientific problem that may be industry driven,” says Samarasekera, whose university houses the NRC’s National Institute of Nanotechnology. “But this is the best of both cultures.”
Gary Goodyear, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, would not comment on the specifics of the report, as it has not been officially released. In a statement he said the panel’s advice will help “modernize programs that support innovation” with the goal of encouraging more companies to invest in R&D.
According to the mandate, the panel’s recommendations could not increase or reduce federal funding to R&D initiatives. “Where we have identified opportunities for savings, we expect the government to reallocate the savings to provide funds for our other recommendations,” the panel wrote.