Emerson reaffirms government commitment to basic science and university research

Guest Contributor
December 7, 2004

Outlines Industry Canada budget requests

Industry minister David Emerson has moved to allay concerns about potential cuts to Canada’s basic research engine with reassurances that the two granting councils for which he has responsibility remain high priorities and can expect budget increases in the future. Emerson used his appearance before the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources and Technology on November 25, to state his support for basic science, and university-based research in particular as critical to future economic growth and improved quality of life. He said that they will continue to be the focus of new investment.

The spectre of cuts to basic science were the focus of recent articles in RE$EARCH MONEY and the subject of a keynote speech at the recent RE$EARCH MONEY conference on commercialization by Mike Lazaridis, president and co-CEO of Research in Motion Ltd (R$, November 9 & November 22/04). Officials at both NSERC and SSHRC have expressed serious concern that support for basic science may be suffer if it is included in the government’s ongoing expenditure review process, of which Emerson is a part.

“As the Minister responsible for science, two of the granting councils and the NRC (National Research Council), I will continue to promote the benefits of investing in basic science, including social science. It is the way to sustained economic growth and to better quality of life for all Canadians,” stated Emerson before the Standing Committee. “Even while we undertake the expenditure review process mandated by the government, the two granting councils – the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – will benefit from increases to their budgets as these areas of research funding remain government priorities.”

Emerson’s statements were welcomed by NSERC president Dr Tom Brzustowski, who has been critical of the government’s decision to include university research funding in the federal expenditure review process. He was present when Emerson made his presentation.

“I came away very encouraged … The minister showed a deep understanding of the issues, not just industry but the impact of research,” says Brzustowski. “As a member of the expenditure review committee, he doesn’t want to see the councils cut. In fact there may be reason to increase the budgets.”

Brzustowski recently told RESEARCH MONEY that the mere perception of waning support for basic science could cause more harm than actual budget cuts, particularly in the area of attracting and retaining world class scientific talent. He called on the government to clarify the issue “with enough visibility to avoid any serious damage in the long term”. Now, he says that Emerson’s statements “went a long way to achieving that”.

In addition to expressing support for basic science, Emerson outlined his department’s requests in the forthcoming Budget for additional funding in several areas (see chart). He maintained the mantra of commercialization while mentioning “targeted tax reductions aimed at boosting productivity and encouraging commercialization” as well as the re-focusing of Technology Partnerships Canada “to encourage the growth of small and medium-sized technology firms”.

While virtually all of the organizations in the Industry Canada portfolio were mentioned, Emerson did not announce any new initiatives, indicating a largely status quo approach moving forward.

“We are seeking an increase in the budget allocations for most of the partners that comprise the Industry Portfolio, even while we reallocate funding from lower-priority to higher-priority programs,” stated Emerson.

The industry minister also stressed the importance of skills development and its place “at the heart of an innovative economy. While acknowledging that the bulk of the government’s effort flows through the department of Human Resources and Skills Development, he described Industry Canada’s role as addressing “looming skills shortages” in specific sectors.


Not everyone is impressed with the content and tone of Emerson’s presentation. Dr Douglas Barber — former CEO of Gennum Corp — has been conducting research into the business perspective of the innovative economy and he found the minister’s approach to innvovation shortsighted.

“It focuses too much on dollar-driven programs but there’s nothing in there on values, attitudes and beliefs and the culture we do these things in,” says Barber. “ Money is only one piece in successful commerce. You also need experience, common sense, good business sense and good customer awareness.”

Barber says that in the past, these attitudes were often learned within the corporate culture. Today, however, firms have largely abdicated that role and look towards educational institutions to pick up the slack. Canada’s business schools — funded by SSHRC — are a logical place for these business values to be inculcated. But Barber contends they haven’t risen to the challenge.

“We need to do these things at the enterprise, federal and provincial levels. We need to engage discussion to challenge entrenched beliefs, “ he says. “We need to get real. We need change or we will not come out of this.”

Barber has co-authored two reports on innovation and business attitudes and is currently working on a third, based on in-depth interviews with start-up and early-stage firms. Preliminary findings indicate that many firms are naive in assuming that adequate funding is the primary ingredient for success. “Some say they had too much money at the beginning and others say the money diverted them,” says Barber. “They needed to burn through the money before they got real.”



($ millions)
Increase to Industry Canada program funding65.7
Complete three National Research Council technology centres
    in British Columbia, Saskatchewan & Prince Edward Island
Communications Research Centre photonics lab7

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