Details scarce as social sciences-leaning NCEs axed from prestigious national program

Guest Contributor
June 13, 2001

Attempts by the Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program to strengthen its role in social sciences research appears to have suffered a setback with the results of the latest competition for Phase II funding. Of the four NCEs applying for a new commitment of funding, the two that were unsuccessful — TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence and the Health Evidence Application and Linkage Network (HEALNet) — both had a strong social sciences emphasis.

Their funding will expire at the end of 2002 and their future is uncertain, although organizations such as CANARIE Inc may be able to assume some of the functions of the TeleLearning NCE. Some TeleLearning researchers could find a home under the funding umbrella of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Obtaining further information on why the two Networks failed to secure another round of seven-year funding is difficult given the apparent veil of secrecy surrounding the various reports prepared during the competition phase. The only official report by the Selection Committee barely touches on the two unsuccessful Networks, saying only that their research was in the national interest and encouraging them to seek funding elsewhere (see box).

“To capitalize on the first cycle of funding investment and to maintain the networking momentum created during the first 7 years, the Committee encourages all researchers and partners involved in these two networks to continue to seek funding for their research program through the appropriate granting agencies and other sources of funds,” states the report.

With the pending demise of HEALNet and TeleLearning, the only remaining NCE that falls directly into the category of social sciences is the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, which received its initial funding allotment in 2000. And while the participation of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council ensures that all NCEs have at least a modicum of research relating to the social sciences, the other 19 Networks all fall within the medical and natural sciences and engineering disciplines.

The bulk of the report deals with the reasons for recommending Phase II funding for the two NCE’s that were successful — Intelligent Systems for Innovative Structures and Sustainable Forest Management.

RE$ESARCH MONEY was able to speak with a representative of HEALNet but could not obtain any comment from TeleLearning representatives before deadline. HEALNet has no plans to contest the decision of the Selection Committee but managing director Diana Royce says the Network has nothing to be ashamed of.

“There is nothing in the report (of the Selection Committee) that leads us to believe that our research program is not internationally valid and important,” she asserts. “The bottom line is we’re confident our new research program (proposed for Phase II funding) is relevant, timely, needed, and fills a niche which is unoccupied in Canada.”

Both HEALNet and TeleLearning were successful in a targeted 1995 competition that sought to introduce more social sciences into the NCE program.Royce contends that this competition represented a shift in NCE policy to allow for more Networks in which social impact and impact on social policy were dominant. The fact that both NCEs will not be proceeding past their Phase I cycle means it’s back to basics, where commercialization trumps social utility.

HEALNet was making great strides in the areas of knowledge management and the acceleration of its research into society, says Royce. It also had a considerable impact on raising national awareness of evidence-based decision making in health care, as reflected in the 1997 National Forum on Health, the 1999 Advisory Council on Health Infostructure and the broad mandate of the CIHR.

But the NCE program is operated under the bureaucracy of Industry Canada, not Health Canada, leading Royce to suspect that HEALNet’s impact was not properly understood.

“Bureaucracies are set up in silos but health is a convergence of social and economic issues. Industry Canada has a particular mandate and a particular set of stakeholders,” she says. “Possibly the silos in the federal government don’t address the convergence of issues in the health care system ... The return on investment for HEALNet was social and the economic benefits were longer-term. We were adding value to the health system and to companies working in the health information system.”

Royce suspects that the good work of HEALNet researchers will continue as they are well positioned to contribute to other research agendas, but she says the students involved in the Network will suffer after its demise.

“The development of highly qualified personnel will be a real casualty. We were just starting to see the benefits in areas like health informatics and keeping young people focused on this emerging industry,” she says. “But we are going out on a high note in my view. We’re proud of what we accomplished and the NCE is a very challenging program. It’s just one of those things.”


NCE Selection Committee

Bill Cheliak (chair)

VP business development & alliance,

Supratek Pharma Inc

James Bruce

Senior associate,

Global Change Strategies International Inc

Michel Claes

Professor, department of psychology,

Univ of Montreal

Joseph Clark

Chairman & CEO,

Videodiscovery Inc, US

John Grace

Professor, dep’t of chemical engineering,

Univ of British Columbia

Rosemary Ommer

Director Calgary Institutes for Humanities,

Univ of Calgary

David Shindler

President & CEO

Milestone Medica Corp

Ian Smith

Professor & director,

Institute for Structural Engineering & Mechanics,

Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland

Jeanne Stellman

Professor & deputy head

Division of health policy and management

Columbia Univ, US

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