Brzustowski returning to academia after 10 years at NSERC helm

Guest Contributor
October 3, 2005

Accepting two university posts

Today marks a new chapter in the career of Dr Tom Brzustowski –— a career that has taken him from management in academia to government and back into the university environment. Brzustowski officially stepped down as president of Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC) last week, capping a 10-year term during which university research enjoyed the largest series of sustained funding increases in Canadian history.

Brzustowski segues into a new position at the Univ of Ottawa’s School of Management where he will be the inaugural chair holder of the RBC Professorship in Technology-Based Innovation. The position offers the opportunity to conduct research and teach, as well as implementing an action agenda to try and disseminate new and existing knowledge about innovation and commercialization into the financial community.

At the same time, Brzustowski will be taking up a new position at the Univ of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) as a special advisor. He is tasked with establishing and ultimately chairing an international strategic advisory committee with the objective of making the IQC one of the world’s best centres for quantum computing research. The two positions are structured to take up about 80% of Brzustowski’s time.

“I’m hoping that nobody will do the arithmetic. I’d like the other 20% for myself,” says Brzustowski in a wide-ranging interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. “At the University of Ottawa I will be reinventing myself as a business professor … I will do research and write papers but I also want to communicate to the right people a lot of what I’ve learned and other people have learned. I want to try and make a difference in getting things done, as opposed to just writing papers that people might not read three years from now.”

Brzustowski’s intention to take an activist approach to his postings at U of O and U of W is indicative of his approach at the helm of NSERC. He arrived in 1995, replacing Dr Peter Morand who had overseen a set of controversial decisions to reallocate scarce resources and focus more on collaborative and industrially relevant research (R$, December 21/94 & January 18/95).

The university research environment Brzustowski encountered when he joined NSERC was nothing like the well-funded enterprise it is today. Program review-related cuts were being administered to the base budgets of the granting agencies and the National Research Council. And a divisive debate was raging within the research community over the relative merits of basic and industrially-targeted research.

“We sorted it out. What was needed was good communications, pointing out to people that some of the most active and successful people in industrially oriented research were also among the most successful in basic research,” says Brzustowski. “Certainly their values didn’t change when they picked up the green folder and put down the blue one.”


The dire funding situation finally began to reverse itself in 1997 with the balancing of the federal budget and a momentous decision to reinvest in the research base. The result was a surge in excellence in several key disciplines and a reversal of Canada’s withering reputation in the international S&T community. Eight years and $13 billion in new federal investment later, Brzustowski says the university research landscape is markedly improved, with areas of research excellence that are world leading.

Of the many examples to choose from, he cites physics and mathematics research where advances have been particularly impressive. The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics has exploded on the Canadian research scene with the assistance in substantial public and private assistance, the latter including $100 million from Mike Lazaridis, co-CEO of Research in Motion Ltd. Arctic research has also come back from near death, spurred in large part by the efforts of Dr Tom Hutchinson (Trent Univ) and a landmark 2000 report by NSERC and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research.

Research into wireless and other communication technologies has surged, largely through assistance from NSERC and provincial activity such as Alberta’s support of iCORE, bolstering Canadian private sector strength in telecommunications and computing.

The impact of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has been pervasive and has been particularly effective in the establishment of the Canadian Light Source, attracting world class researchers to Saskatoon. The CFI and NSERC also had a role in the evolution of the Canadian Microelectronics Corp into CMC Microsystems, expanding the scope of the research it enables.

“It’s gone from a model of providing design and testing tools for professors and graduate students in microelectronics across the country and then having the foresight to see the need to evolve to the system-on-a-chip initiative and now microsystems,” says Brzustowski.

Canada’s growing reputation as a supporter of world class research is reflected in many ways, not the least of which is a reversal of the so-called brain drain that caused so much alarm in the late 1990s. Brzustowski points to initiatives such as CFI, the Canada Research Chairs program, as well as an upswing in private philanthropy.

Underpinning the reinvigorated national research base are the granting councils, which have seen their budgets increase significantly although not uniformly. NSERC’s has nearly doubled during Brzustowski’s tenure, but he says that his successor cannot be complacent. He has proposed a formula for gauging an appropriate funding level — one 10th of 1% of gross domestic product (GDP). If accepted that would increase NSERC’s annual budget of about $800 million by approximately 50% to $1.2 billion.

“I think it’s realistic compared to what other countries do. If you look at the possibility that 3% of GDP might be spent on R&D across the board, public and private, this is one 30th of that,” he says. “If we want to do the things we need to do in this country, it’s a reasonable number.”

Brzustowski also suggests that his successor would be wise to continue the establishment of regional offices across Canada, adding to the NSERC offices in Moncton and Winnipeg that are now in place.


At the national level, Brzustowski says the government must implement an innovation strategy that deals with all aspects of the economy, not just the commercialization of promising university-based research. He points to the recent work of Dr Douglas Barber and its emphasis on market driven innovation and the role of universities in training highly qualified personnel as particularly relevant.

“The basic concern with building a foundation for maintaining sustainable prosperity in Canada is there and will continue,” he says. “As people spend more time thinking about what has to be done ... then maybe we can get our act together and move more quickly. One of the wisest people in this area is Doug Barber. He’s the best informed and one of the wisest in the country.”


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