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Opinion

Investments in discovery have never been more important to Canada

By Mario Pinto      

Science is a long game. Funding for research and scholarships now will pay off in future.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, right, speaks to Arthur McDonald, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics and a Canadian, in 2016.
The Hill Times file photograph

Recently, I joined Science Minister Kirsty Duncan for an announcement of a major investment in cutting-edge research and hundreds of post-graduate scholarships, both funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

What NSERC does best, year in and year out, is invest in ideas and talent for the benefit of Canada. This is our core business. This year, we were grateful that the minister and so many of her colleagues demonstrated enthusiastic support for these investments.

In the midst of the fourth industrial revolution—being driven by the confluence of the digital, biological, and physical—natural sciences and engineering research and training has never been so important to Canada’s future prosperity. From bio-printing to machine learning, NSERC investments are supporting intellectual curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking essential for the economy of tomorrow. These investments will build talent and address global challenges such as the need for food and clean water for all, healthy mothers and babies, and a clean planet.

The Canadian government announced scholarships for promising masters and PhD students and post-doctoral fellows. We’ve been providing these scholarships for almost 40 years and we know they generate talent. For example, the incoming governor general, Julie Payette, studied at the University of Toronto with the support of an NSERC-funded Post-Graduate Masters Scholarship.

Our Discovery Grants provide support to 70 per cent of the academic workforce in the natural sciences and engineering in Canada. This broad base of support ensures that we capture as much diversity as possible in the research enterprise. We invest in male and female researchers; established researchers; emerging professors; small, large, and mid-sized universities; and professors across diverse disciplines.

This academic base also provides a rich foundation to recruit and develop world-calibre talent. Professors spend 60 per cent of this funding to support students working on research, which ensures they are prepared to take on future challenges. In total, NSERC supports indirectly and directly the training of more than 32,000 students annually, more than 11,000 of which work on research projects in partnerships with industry.

It is also important to note that all of the researchers receiving Discovery Grants have the opportunity to expand their activities using NSERC research partnership programs. In fact, 90 per cent of NSERC-industry research partnerships are led by NSERC Discovery researchers. Within this context, we view the Discovery Grant as a seal of excellence. These partnerships mix academic talent with industry talent, creating new perspectives. Significant matching investment from industry, about $220-million in 2016-2017 ($128-million in cash contributions), indicates to us that industry also sees value in these partnerships.

Science is a long game. With our ongoing commitment to developing talent and ideas through our programs and making connections between diverse participants across the researcher enterprise, we’re in it for the long haul. Canada’s future economic prosperity depends on it.

Dr. B. Mario Pinto is president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

The Hill Times

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