The front page budget article
in your April edition fails to acknowledge it was the previous 20 budgets that initiated the downward spiral of innovation in Canada. The current budget simply ignores the root cause of the spiral and lets it continue.
The cause and solution lies in the NSERC Discovery Grant Program. This program provides a broad base of research support for biologists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists and psychologists at dozens of large and small universities across Canada and is the primary source of funding for a majority of graduate students.
Despite the fundamental importance of the Discovery Grant Program for scientific and engineering research in Canada, its budget has increased only 30 per cent over 20 years while the cost of scientific research has more than doubled. NSERC Discovery Grants now support only one graduate student and minimal supplies, and the resulting smaller research groups produce fewer experiments and skilled trainees. Inevitably, innovation in the form of novel discoveries has suffered.
Discovery-based research provides the grist for the industrial mill. The discoveries of transistors, lasers, stem cells, antibiotics and restriction enzymes were not planned. They were the outcome of investigations into the unknown, unfettered by outcome targets. Derivative research to improve existing gizmos can be mandated and planned, but innovative research that provides the base for the development of new gizmos cannot be planned.
To improve innovation and prevent the pipeline of new gizmos from drying up, thereby hindering industrial development, we must prime the pump and support the scientists and engineers who provide the discoveries and train the skilled people.
A substantial increase in the budget of the Discovery Grant Program is essential to reverse the downward spiral of innovation in science and engineering in Canada.
Peter C. Loewen
Head, Department of Microbiology
Canada Research Chair in Protein Chemistry
University of Manitoba