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CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island — Canada’s National Research Council is the country’s premier scientific institution, helping to produce such inventions as the pacemaker and the robotic arm used on the American space shuttle. But last year, its mission changed.
The Canadian government announced a transformation of the 98-year-old agency, formerly focused largely on basic research, into a one-stop “concierge service” to bolster technological innovation by industry — historically weak — and generate high-quality jobs.
This has set off a dispute over the future of Canada’s capacity to carry out fundamental research, with university scientists and academic organizations uncharacteristically vocal about the government’s blunt preference for commercially applicable science.
“We are not sure the government appreciates the role that basic research plays,” said Kenneth Ragan, a McGill University physicist and president of the Canadian Association of Physicists: “The real question is, How does it view not-directed, nonindustrial, curiosity-driven blue-sky research? I worry the view is that it is irrelevant at best and that in many cases they actually dislike it.”
The remodeling of the research council is one in a series of policy changes that have generated fierce pushback by Canadian academics in recent years. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also under fire for closing research libraries, shutting down research facilities and restricting when government scientists can speak publicly about their work. Last year the Canadian Association of University Teachers began a national campaign, “Get Science Right,” with town-hall meetings across the country to mobilize public opposition to the policies. Scientists have even taken to the streets of several Canadian cities in protest.
While the transformation of the National Research Council has been criticized, the government as well as some science-policy analysts say that better connecting businesses with research is an important step for Canada.
Having examined models in other countries, the National Research Council chose to streamline its operations to act as “the pivot between the two worlds” of industry and academics, with an eye toward new products and innovations, said Charles Drouin, a spokesman for the council. He said the agency had not moved away from support for fundamental research but wanted to focus such efforts better. “There is basic research, but it is directed, as opposed to undirected as you would find it in universities.”
Another battleground for the future of basic research has been the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a federal granting agency that serves as the first stop for financing fundamental research by Canadian scientists.
In 2011-12, the latest year for which data are available, the council’s “discovery” grants for fundamental research accounted for 38.4 percent of its budget, down from 50.1 percent in 2001-2. Its “innovation” grants, which encourage the transfer of university-developed technology to industry, rose to 31.4 percent in 2011-12, up from 25.3 percent a decade earlier. (The council also directs part of its roughly $1-billion budget to postdoctoral fellowships and other awards for young researchers.)
“The government has invested proportionately more on the innovation side, where it was seen that we had more challenges,” said Pierre J. Charest, vice president of research grants and scholarships at the government agency. He noted that the council was “on track” to double the number of scientists forming partnerships with industry.
Mr. Charest said criticism about a smaller percentage of funds for discovery grants missed a larger point — that the budget had grown over the past decade to almost $325 million in 2012-13. However, much of that increase comes from a special supplement for a select group of researchers to explore potentially transformative concepts.
One who has felt the pinch is Norman Hüner, an internationally recognized plant biochemist and physiologist at the University of Western Ontario, who holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair in environmental-stress biology. A longtime recipient of discovery grants, he and his research collaborators are exploring a potential breakthrough in the use of photosynthesis to trick plants to grow in suboptimal conditions — relevant research in Mr. Hüner’s view, given concerns about climate change.
But in 2012, after applying for a new grant to continue his research, the professor received $50,000 a year for five years — a sharp drop from the previous award of $132,000 a year over five years. “I was shocked, absolutely,” he recalled. “I am disillusioned beyond words.”
The cut has led to the departures of some senior scientists from his lab. And save for one new postdoctoral student with her own funds, Mr. Hüner is not replenishing his stable of young researchers. At 67, Mr. Hüner now plans to retire several years ahead of schedule.
Even those involved in commercialization efforts question the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s new approach.
“If you have ideas that are going to lead to commercialization opportunities, you should absolutely get seed-stage funding,” said James E. Colliander, a mathematician at the University of Toronto. He acknowledged that funding for applied research was “crucially important” but said he was “not sure that the principal vehicle for funding basic research should be the path to get those dollars.” Mr. Colliander has received several major discovery grants and is also involved in an effort to bring to market a web application for large-scale academic exam assessment.
Beyond the changes in the two councils, some wonder if Canadian industry is prepared to step up its role in research innovation. In Canada’s largely foreign-owned industrial sector, research is often carried out at corporate headquarters abroad, while home-grown businesses lack the appetite or budget.
Some liken the federal strategy to pushing on a string.
The current policy appears to be trying to “push” technology from universities to industry, but what is needed to increase the level of innovation is for industry to get better at investing in new ideas and well-qualified researchers, said Arthur Carty, a former science adviser to the prime minister and a former head of the National Research Council. “Companies have to have innovation in their philosophical strategies, and they don’t have it,” said Mr. Carty, now executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Nanotechnology.
Uncertainty over the response of industry is a common refrain even among those who see merit in the federal strategy.
“Canada has had most of its eggs in the basic-research basket for quite a long time,” said Richard W. Hawkins, Canada research chair in science, technology and innovation policy at the University of Calgary. He has also spent years outside Canada as an adviser to governments and international agencies on innovation policy. “Governments want to invest in science and technology because they think it will lead to growth and innovation,” he said. “Governments all over the world have the same rationale.”
What’s missing in Canada, he said, is a deep understanding about how sectors of the economy could exploit knowledge to diversify and create new industries. “In Canada we know relatively less about our situation than most of our competitor countries,” he said.
But some senior scientists warn of risks to Canada’s higher-education system if pure, scholarly research is perceived as unimportant.
“One of the major contradictions of the Conservative government at the moment is that no one in Canada will question the need to have the best universities in the world,” said Daniel E. Guitton, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University. “Now how do you get them? You’re not going to get them by having people focus on an industry-related problem.”
Science policy analysts say it is too early to judge the impact of the government’s current strategy. But on one point, there is little debate. “To be honest, I’ve not seen this level of advocacy from the scientific community before,” said Paul Dufour, a fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy. “That’s new in this country, and I think that’s a healthy thing.”