Volume 29 - Number 11 - Thursday, February 27, 1997

Research networks are here to stay

by Daniel McCabe

Electrical engineering professor David Plant describes some of the work carried out by McGill researchers at the Canadian Institute for Telecommunications Research to Industry Minister John Manley and Human Resources Development Minister Pierre Pettigrew


The Networks of Centres of Excellence are now officially a permanent part of this country's research landscape. But the scientists belonging to the networks can't afford to get too relaxed--a competition for new networks will be held later this year and that will probably spell the end for one or two of those currently in operation.

Federal industry minister John Manley visited McGill last week to deliver the news that the networks program has been given permanent standing. "That was a nice surprise," says McGill's vice-principal (research) Pierre Bélanger. "Almost everyone expected that the program would be renewed for another few years, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it made permanent."

The networks will now receive a guaranteed $47.4 million from Ottawa each year.

There are 14 Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) and McGill researchers are involved in all but one. Three are headquartered at the University--the Canadian Institute for Tele-communications Research, the Neuroscience Network and Inspiraplex, the respiratory health network.

The NCE program began in 1989. The idea was to create multidisciplinary alliances among some of the country's top scientists. The partnerships involved researchers from universities, industry and government agencies from across the country. The mission for these teams was to aggressively pursue new technologies that could benefit Canada's economy. As a result, the networks' success wasn't solely dependent on their ability to foster good science. In order to get the thumbs-up from the federal government, the NCEs had to produce new patents and products, spin-off companies and jobs.

Manley says the NCEs have delivered the goods and that's why Ottawa is giving the program permanent status. "These networks have helped accelerate the transfer of technology in this country." Thirty-five spin-off companies have been created by NCE research discoveries.

The NCE program has also offered training opportunities for thousands of graduate and postgraduate students and Manley says this aspect of the program is crucial.

"The young researchers and students who have worked in these networks have been very successful in finding work in their professions. The rate of employment for these people is 97.3%. That's very important. They can market their skills anywhere in the world, but we want them to stay here in Canada."

Networks will now be funded for seven-year periods instead of four years. Each NCE is eligible for no more than 14 years of funding support from the program. Networks in operation will be evaluated after four years to ensure that they're on course--if a network is judged poorly at this point, its funding will be phased out. At the end of the first seven-year funding cycle, existing networks will compete with applicants for new networks.

"I expect that some of the existing networks won't survive the next competition," says Bélanger. "I actually prefer that to a situation where the money would be spread out more thinly to a larger number of networks."

Dr. Albert Aguayo, a neurology professor at McGill, is the scientific director of the Neuroscience Network. Along with Montreal Neurological Institute director Dr. Richard Murphy and other colleagues, Aguayo helped lead an effective lobbying effort among NCE scientists aimed at convincing the government of the program's effectiveness. He's pleased that the NCE program will receive stable funding, but admits that the government's support for the networks doesn't make up for the millions of dollars that have been cut from the budgets of granting agencies such as the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

In fact, more money will be sliced from the budgets of the granting councils in order to support the networks--most of these cuts will target other programs promoting links between academics and industry.

"We're very good middlemen when it comes to technology transfer," says Aguayo of the networks. "But we can't transfer what isn't there. We need to provide better support for basic science in this country because that's where the new ideas come from."

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