Would NSERC have paid for developing the laser?

It’s been so busy here, I almost missed out on blogging the 2010-11 federal budget and its consequences for research funding. Paul Wells in Maclean’s:

[T]he motor of basic research in the country is the three granting councils, SSHRC, NSERC and the CIHR. Budget 2010 gives them $32 million a year in new funding, beginning in 2010-11. Which is great (not really; it’s very modest) until you remember that last year’s budget imposed a $43 million cut on the three councils for ’10-11. So now they’ll only have to find $11 million in cuts next year. Hooray.

According to the official NSERC press release, NSERC is getting an 13M increase this year. Unfortunately, this covers only slightly more than a half of the 23.3M cut for 2010-11 from last year’s budget, and a further 34.7M cut is coming in 2011-12. Moreover, only 8M of the 13M increase will go towards the Discovery Grants program. The remaining 5M is for the “Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation”:

Our goal is to accelerate innovation in Canada by helping businesses of all sizes and in all sectors connect and collaborate with the research strength in our post-secondary institutions to find the competitive edge they need to excel.

For example (emphasis mine):

Two research projects at the University of Western Ontario were among the 122 projects chosen to receive federal funding under a program that aims to turn the results of academic research into real benefits for Canadians.

First of all, if you really believe that “academic research” is, well, just academic, as opposed to commercial technology which provides “real benefits”, I’d like to refer you to this Guardian article on the 50th anniversary of one of the most ubiquitous modern technological inventions, the laser:

Since then the technology has been developed, miniaturised, commoditised, extended and deployed to the point where it’s virtually impossible to find a manufactured product that hasn’t encountered a laser at some stage in its creation or use. When you play a DVD, a semiconductor laser less than a millimetre wide scans the disc’s surface. The intricate cutting and welding of the steel in your car door was done by lasers. The internet’s backbone runs mainly via laser light transmitted along fibre-optic cables. Every supermarket checkout uses a laser beam to scan barcodes. American forces in Afghanistan are now using powerful lasers mounted on Humvees to detonate any roadside bombs ahead of them.

Lasers are thus a critical part of our technological infrastructure, yet no one involved in the research that led to them had any inkling of what their investigations would produce. The original idea goes back to a paper Albert Einstein published in 1917 on “The Quantum Theory of Radiation” about the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. For 40 years, stimulated emission was of absorbing interest to quantum physicists, but of little interest to anyone else – certainly to nobody in government.

Do click over there and read the whole thing – it’s absolutely worth your time.

I’m not just picking on a single unfortunately phrased sentence in a press release. The Conservative government has made it clear over and over again that this is indeed where its priorities lie: innovation with immediate commercial applications. The description of the two projects in question matches what’s becoming an obligatory template: the scientists will develop [insert Science Project explained in Lay Terms] which will be used for [insert Industrial Application here], and “benefits for Canadians” need to be mentioned at least once. And that’s a reflection of what is being demanded of us.

The fact of the matter is, while good research does have a way of making itself useful, the applications aren’t always immediate or known in advance (see: the laser), nor is it always a process that can be described in one sentence. We are long past the stage of technological development that allowed a one to one correspondence between scientific discoveries and practical inventions (see: the sun clock). Today’s technologies are complex entanglements of many different ideas and building blocks. Upgrade a single block – the sort of innovation where the results are predictable and the connection between the research and the commercial product is immediate – and you have an incremental improvement. Overhaul the entire plan, arrange new elements in a new way, and you might have a major invention on your hands. And where do the new building blocks come from? Please do read that Guardian article if you haven’t done so already.

And then, as you think of all the possible benefits of basic research, you might for instance stumble across the news that 90% of the galaxies in the universe have just been found. In our quest for the monetary payoff, must we lose our ability to marvel at the sheer awesomeness of science? Must we forget the human need for knowledge and understanding, the simple curiosity of what lies beyond that has driven the development of civilizations?

Or do I digress?

Let’s move on to the follow-up question, then: where, exactly, do we draw the line between public research funding and taxpayer-funded subsidies to commercial industry? Consider the Engage and Interaction grant programs, designated to support “company-specific” research. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has passed a resolution condemning both programs for the inappropriate funneling of federal research money to the private sector and for abandoning normal peer review procedures. I had to blink more than a few times when I read this on the Engage Grant Program web page:

Due to the focus on a problem specific to the chosen company, and the short duration of this grant, any Intellectual Property (IP) arising from the project will belong to the company.

That, I thought, runs contrary to both the NSERC policy on intellectual property and the long-standing tradition that federal research grants cannot be spent on commercial proprietary technology. Turns out, I was wrong. The NSERC policy on intellectual property has just been revised. The old policy stated explicitly:

NSERC does not participate in funding projects that involve a contractual arrangement with an industrial partner who expects total control of the project results stemming from publicly funded research.

NSERC claims no rights of ownership of IP associated with an award. NSERC expects that any IP resulting from research it funds wholly or in part will be owned by the university or the inventor, according to university policy. Access to IP should be accorded to other sponsors in recognition of, and in proportion to, the sponsor’s contribution to the collaboration.

The new policy has no such constraints, explicitly permitting the full ownership of NSERC-supported research by companies. It puts the researchers on the defensive, with only minimal constraints imposed on the industry: IP issues should not delay the graduation of students, “secret or classified research” is not supported, and “[t]he university/college and its researchers must retain the right to use the knowledge or IP generated for non-commercial purposes in future research and in teaching.” If all participants agree, that right might even be extended to all university researchers. How generous.

This page describes the review process that led to these changes, with some further links. I found the Comments page particularly interesting. You see, I’m sure that this will come to you as a surprise, but private companies generally strive to optimize their profit. Of course their preference is to secure the ownership of intellectual property whenever they can. Some of the respondents pointed out, quite sensibly, that the industry doesn’t always have to get everything it wants and that the old policy put the scientists in a good negotiating position. Obviously they were overruled.

From my point of view as a researcher, the Engage and Interaction programs do not create any incentives to get involved in industrial projects. I don’t go out of my way to seek out commercial opportunities – that’s not what I signed up for – but should they arise, I will do my best to protect my ownership rights and I fully expect that my university will watch out for theirs. As for companies, I wouldn’t really know, but if this is what it takes to bring them to the table, then perhaps there might be better paths to innovation than short-term collaborations where the research output isn’t necessarily worth the effort put into bringing the researchers up to speed.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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