Features | New Sheriff In Town

Welcoming new principals and principles

Scientific research, it seems, is making its way down a path uncharted. A debate has surfaced over the past few years, largely focused on contentious questions involving the source of research funding and the longstanding goal of scientific research. Suzanne Fortier, McGill’s incoming principal, who starts her stewardship on September 5, has found herself at the center of the raging debate.

Fortier comes to McGill at a historical crossroads. Being a native Quebecoise and a fluent French speaker certainly distinguishes her from Heather Munroe-Blum, who recently left her ten-year tenure as McGill’s first female principal. Fortier also holds the distinction of being a McGill graduate – a trait that Munroe-Blum did not share.

Despite the historical relevance of Fortier’s appointment, her role as president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has garnered something of a controversy. In fact, Nassif Ghoussoub – Mathematics Professor at the University of British Columbia – has covered scientific research in Canada extensively, including NSERC’s actions, often with a hefty amount of criticism to go with it.

Fortier started at NSERC in 2006, after a long tenure at Queen’s University, where she taught chemistry and held several senior administrative positions. She was the  VP Academic at Queen’s for five years prior to her start at NSERC, and VP Research prior to that. Speaking to The Daily upon her initial appointment at McGill, Fortier pointed to her work at Queen’s as part and parcel of what she  may do at McGill.

“I have experience with dealing with some sort of financial constraints in periods where institutions have to make cuts,” she said. She also added that she had a fair amount of labour experience at the university, saying, “When I was at Queen’s, my last responsibility there as VP Academic was in fact at the bargaining table.

After 25 years at Queen’s, Fortier was appointed as President of NSERC by then-Industry Minister David Emerson, notoriously labeled as “Canada’s Corporate Cowboy” by rabble.ca back in 2006.  This reputation is mostly due to his key role in a $1.5 billion bailout of the forestry industry, as well as supporting “tax regimes that rewarded forestry companies for rapidly replacing workers with machinery.”

Once Fortier assumed her position as NSERC’s president, she helped transform the organization into one with a defined mission. Those who value scientific research that is either funded by industrial backers, conducted for industrial purposes, or, quite simply, driven with a defined purpose in mind consider her time at NSERC a success. However, those who may perhaps yearn for the days of old-fashioned, somewhat-meandering, “research for the sake of research,” and the happy accident of discovery without a specific goal, see some problems. This age-old tension, between what is termed applied versus basic research, has only grown more pronounced as industrial pursuit takes a larger role in scientific innovation over that of government.

Ghoussoub has been a vocal critic of the emphasis that Fortier has placed on applied research during her time at NSERC.

NSERC changed in many directions,” he told The Daily. According to Ghoussoub, Fortier interacted with the scientific community far less than her predecessor, and prioritized interaction with the “political class” to support scientific innovation. “The basic research budget has been frozen for years, he said.

Fortier has been aggressive in her emphasis on applied research – a trend that has been increasing over the past few years. Namely, there has been significant debate over NSERC’s allocation of its Discovery Grant program under Fortier. The Discovery Grants fund basic research that does not have short-term, specific goals in mind, and instead seeks to experiment and innovate without the pressure of a specific activity or purpose. According to NSERC’s website, Discovery Grants “recognize the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of all research advances, whether made individually or in teams.

But Discovery Grants saw a decline during Fortier’s tenure. According to the Gazette, the Canadian Association of University Teachers – the main federation representing professors, researchers, and university staff across the country – calculated that Discovery Grants have “been dropping in constant 2010 dollars, while targeted research funding has been on the rise at NSERC.” That drop translates into real numbers: 2008-09 saw Discovery Grants leading targeted grants in funding by a gap of $109 million. But in 2012-13, targeted grants saw an increase in funding while Discovery saw a drop, and the gap narrowed to a mere $7.4 million. With such a dramatic change, it is not inconceivable that targeted grants may beat out Discovery Grants in the very near future.

The Discovery Grant … not only has been frozen, but also it has been restructured,” Ghoussoub told The Daily, pointing toward that same emphasis on targeted grants and research partnerships.

Ghoussoub was a signatory on a 2011 open letter from over 300 Canadian mathematicians and researchers from the mathematics and statistical communities, expressing concern with the direction of the Discovery Grants program.

The “mission drift” away from basic research and Discovery Grants has tended toward research partnerships – another core part of NSERC’s mission – that focus on commercializing research in a variety of ways. For instance, NSERC’s Engage Grant program remains one of the organization’s larger programs in research partnerships, bringing together business and academic researchers. The program – despite the freeze in the basic research budget – has seen a huge boost in funding over the years, from $2 million in 2010-11 to $18 million in 2011-12.

Does an emphasis on commercialized research take away from the so-called “purity” of scientific pursuit? Maybe, maybe not. The Daily was unable to reach Suzanne Fortier to hear her side of the story – though she has written several opinion pieces over the years touting the importance of industrial partnerships, consistently pointing to the perceived need for such partnerships in order to spur scientific innovation and economic progress. In one 2011 article for the Hill Times, she emphasized the link between industry and scientific pursuit: “NSERC is committed to up its game in stimulating these dynamic interactions between business and academia.”

In another piece, she directly acknowledged the actions that NSERC was taking to achieve such a dynamic:

“While fostering academic-industry partnerships has always been a key NSERC priority, we have substantially ramped up our efforts in the past year. In particular, we saw the potential to expand our reach with industry through funding support designed with small and medium-sized enterprises in mind. Last November, NSERC launched its Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation (SPI) – Connect. Collaborate. Prosper. a comprehensive and ambitious venture whose goals include doubling the number of companies that partner with NSERC-funded researchers. This plan builds on existing initiatives and introduces new government programs intended to bring together Canadian businesses with academic researchers to heighten their [Research and Development]. We have been supported in our efforts with extra funding allocated in the federal budget of 2010, which included $5-million to further SPI and an extra $15-million for our College and Community Innovation (CCI) program.”

This controversy over research principles  – whether with or without merit – speaks volumes to the importance of Fortier’s appointment as principal, perhaps more so than her status as a francophone, her scientific background, or her role as the second woman to run McGill.

McGill’s Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations) Rose Goldstein noted that McGill has historically had a very good relationship with NSERC. When asked about the debate over basic versus applied research, however, she spoke little to the controversy, and emphasized that McGill seeks to include a wide variety of types of research as outlined in its Strategic Research Plan.

The Strategic Research Plan, endorsed by both Senate in November and the Board of Governors in February, is a tool outlining McGill’s future in scientific research endeavors. In particular, it facilitates the University’s distribution of CRCs, or Canada Research Chairs – a prestigious sort of research professorship. McGill uses the Plan as a means of guiding its CRC allocation, often used as a tool for recruitment. Expecting its rate of CRC allocation to remain relatively stable throughout 2017, McGill allocates 35 per cent of the chairs to NSERC-centric grants, primarily involving the natural sciences, life sciences, engineering, space exploration, and “technology applications in the Digital Age.”

Most of NSERC’s grants at McGill go to students in the faculties of Science and Engineering, due to the agency’s mission, though students can apply from anywhere as long as their research meets NSERC’s criteria. According to Julie Fortier, Associate Director of McGill’s Media Relations Office, in 2011-12 NSERC awarded McGill 1,186 grants and scholarships, through more than forty programs, for $58.4 million in total funding.

McGill, too, has seen its fair share of corporate research – in February, for instance, two McGill professors received Synergy Awards for Innovation from NSERC, funding $200,000 in further research, in partnership with companies both well-known and unknown, like General Motors of Canada and CelluForce. Interestingly enough, one of the professors to receive the award is researching cellulose nanocrystals, a technology that Fortier specifically championed in an op-ed for the Hill Times.

McGill may be a microcosm of what is happening in Canada’s scientific community at large: a shift away from basic research toward applied research. The merits of such a shift are largely debatable; does either form of research hold a more important role in the future of scientific innovation?

There are arguments for both sides of the story. For one, basic research has historically provided a foundation for later technological innovations, despite its seemingly superfluous nature. Not only can it result in new information, but also new forms of instrumentation and methodologies. Basic research does provide huge economic benefits in its general dissemination of knowledge.

On the other hand, the very methodology of applied research targets specific problems at hand with backing that, often, the government may not be able to provide. Additionally, it can tackle issues seen as more “relevant” – based on the amount of money thrown at each applied research endeavor.

But in a globalized economy with shrinking government power, and a societal emphasis on efficiency, the move toward applied research may seem only logical. Additionally, with the federal government’s gradual move toward privatization in full force, a national science agency that emphasizes business ties seems to fit into such a vein.

While the pernicious forces of privatization may continue to force agencies like NSERC to promote business partnerships, ultimately, there is no reason to say that Fortier does not care about basic research. Fortier’s principalship at McGill will have little to do with the allocation of scientific grants, and we cannot expect her past at NSERC to have much bearing on her position at the University, apart from her apparent expertise in administrative management.

However, one might expect to see Fortier continue Munroe-Blum’s slow march toward privatization in the University at large, as McGill becomes friendlier to corporations and business interests. As with Munroe-Blum, it will be essential for students to carefully evaluate and criticize McGill’s path forward, and what kind of university we want the administration to help us build.