NSERC president outlines the future of research

Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Science & Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), visited York University on March 10 at the invitation of Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, to help celebrate the council’s 25th anniversary.

Right: Tom Brzustowski

The NSERC president, who spent the entire day at York, toured several research centres and labs, held a roundtable discussion with the Chairs of York’s NSERC-funded departments, and gave a lecture to faculty members and students in which he outlined his vision for the future of science and engineering research in Canada. He also provided awards to 39 York researchers at a special ceremony and reception to honour the 25-year partnership on research between York and NSERC. (For more information about the awards please refer to the March 12 issue of YFile.)


Above: NSERC president Tom Brzustowski held a roundtable discussion with York researchers.

In his open lecture, attended by close to 100 people, Brzustowski delivered a presentation aimed at starting a national debate on where NSERC and scientific research should go over the coming 25 years. While briefly recognizing the grand achievements of science and engineering research in Canada over the 25-year history of NSERC, Brzustowski was intent on delivering his personal vision for the future.

He pointed to the fact that NSERC must continue its mandate of investing in people, discovery and innovation through programs that support university research in the natural sciences and engineering on the basis of national, peer-reviewed competitions. “That will continue to be our major activity,” said Brzustowski. “But in addition, NSERC will reach out across the country to meet important needs in the education of highly-qualified personnel, in research, and in innovation. These needs are different in different parts of Canada. To do a good job in meeting them, we will develop a local presence across Canada.” In other words, “NSERC is a federal agency that will start acting as a national agency,” he said. This will include the establishment of regional offices in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.

In order to build public recognition and discourage the belief that NSERC is simply a granting council – an organization that does nothing but distribute research money – the council will re-brand itself as “Science and Engineering Research Canada”.

A newly focused NSERC will develop new actions as part of its efforts to have a more diverse impact on the entire sphere of science and engineering research in Canada. According to Brzustowski, new actions for the agency will be clustered under three distinct categories, “people, discovery and innovation.” Investment in people will include new efforts to improve science and math education in the K-12 sector. Investment in discovery will support regional capacity building in research and development of a national framework for “big science”. Investment in innovation will focus on helping to develop innovation at the community level.

Brzustowski discussed the current “good news” for research in Canada, including a massive faculty renewal that is bringing good young researchers into universities, the effectiveness of federal and provincial initiatives to support research, large investments into first-rate research infrastructure, and the increasing support of partnerships in research between universities, government, industry and NGOs. “And students educated within such partnerships are becoming important in Canada’s capacity for innovation,” he said.

But challenges do face Canada’s science and engineering researchers, pointed out Brzustowski. The NSERC president indicated that the installation of new research infrastructure is outstripping the availability of operating funds. Canadian university researchers have less time for research. “There is a shortage of skilled people to commercialize the results of university research and this is affecting our ability to create wealth in Canada,” said Brzustowski. Coupled with these challenges is the lack of funding on research and development initiatives by Canadian industry and the fact that most of Canada’s exports are raw materials with only a few innovative products resulting from research being exported.

Not wanting to take on the role of fortune teller and set out a list of expected discoveries and breakthroughs over the future, Brzustowski chose instead to detail what he called “the five unifying themes of research over the next 25 years.”

The themes include “integration” or interdisciplinary research – the exchange of perspectives, concepts, methods and information across and among current disciplines – which Brzustowski sees as being particularly valuable as we move forward research on the human being, sustainable development, security, and molecular-scale phenomena. Another theme “drinking from a fire hose” deals with the flood of data and information available to researchers and the subsequent need to develop new tools, new applications and new methods to utilize this raw data. “Modelling” becomes an important third theme in Brzustowski’s vision. Modelling relies heavily on predictions, measurements and observations based on complex mathematics like that undertaken at York by Professor Jianhong Wu who is modelling the outbreak of infectious diseases like SARS. A fourth theme, “institutional innovation”, highlighted by Brzustowski, will involve the need for researchers, granting councils, and universities to develop new expectations, new behaviours and new ways to encourage and reward unique and cutting-edge research projects. Finally, in his fifth theme of “commercialization and strategies for wealth creation”, Brzustowski highlighted the importance of the commercialization of basic research and the need for trained professionals capable of “recognizing that the results might have a use.”

So what does the future hold? According to Brzustowski research will continue to grow and expand in universities such as York because of the people who are now being appointed. Other significant markers include:

  • Major discoveries in many fields will be attributed to Canadian researchers and these discoveries will increase over the next 25 years.
  • There will be an increase in institutional innovation in research funding to encourage a greater volume of risky and novel university research by teams of scholars from a variety of disciplines.
  • Young people educated in the context of research evolving in this way will treat the integration of disciplines and approaches as routine, and will represent a new capacity in Canadian society to deal with new and complex problems in many areas.
  • University research in partnership with industry will build up the receptor capacity of the Canadian economy for new knowledge and its innovative use, as the grad students educated in that context join industry.
  • The capacity of university research to contribute more directly to innovation in the Canadian economy will grow as universities develop the capacity to commercialize research results in an appropriate and effective fashion.

The complete PowerPoint presentation given by Brzustowski is available on the York Research secure Web site, please log in here.