Three Networks lose funding

DANIEL McCABE | Ten of the country's most remarkable research alliances have just endured their toughest test and the results for three of them are devastating.

Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence recently found out how they fared in the program's competition for Phase III funding. At stake was millions of dollars of government support and, quite possibly, the future survival of some of the networks. Of the four networks headquartered at McGill, only one, the Canadian Institute for Telecommunications Research, will continue to receive funding.

A selection committee chaired by Acadia University president Kelvin Ogilvie recommended that three McGill-based networks, Concrete Canada, Inspiraplex (the respiratory health network) and the Neuro Science Network, stop receiving NCE funds altogether.

McGill neurology professor Dr. Albert Aguayo, scientific director of the Neuro Science Network, was shocked. "I never dreamed this decision might be taken. It was terribly unexpected."

The NCE program was introduced in 1989 to create multidisciplinary alliances among the country's top scientists. The networks involved researchers from universities, industry and government agencies. Their mission was to aggressively pursue new technologies that could benefit Canada's economy. Networks were expected to generate world class research, train outstanding young scientists and produce new patents, spin-off companies and jobs.

Electrical engineering professor Birendra Prasada, director of the Canadian Institute for Telecommunications Research, says his network is an example of the value of the NCE program.

"McGill has one of the best teams in the world in the area of photonics and they're part of this network. The University of Toronto brings its strength in multiprocessors. École Polytechnique is known for its work in semiconductor processes. You marry all that together and that's where the real value of the network comes from  getting people with different skills to focus their energies on certain questions."

The expectation was that networks would eventually become self-sustaining and that NCE funding wouldn't last forever. New networks would emerge to receive support, while older networks would have to leave the nest and make their own way or perish. Of the 15 original networks, 10 survived the competition for Phase II funding.

Aguayo understands the NCE philosophy, but thinks it's wrongheaded.

"Tom Brzustowski [president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council] characterized the Phase III competition as a race of Olympians. He said some would win and some would lose. It shouldn't be a race. The networks were an experiment, a new development on the Canadian scene, and they've been a success. It doesn't make sense to me to build something that's valuable and just halt it in its tracks.

"The government wants industry to step in. Industry is involved in the networks, the government's support of the networks has been leveraged because of industry's involvement. But it's a mistake to think that industry can play the leadership role. Science requires a long-term commitment to really flourish and that means the government has to be the leading force. That isn't happening in Canada.

"I see this as an expression of the lack of support science receives in this country. The cuts to the granting councils are another example  the Medical Research Council is languishing. Of all the countries in the G7, we're possibly the worst in terms of supporting science. The danger is that our best scientists will just leave and go to places where the environment is more stable."

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger expressed his regret about the selection committee's decision. "These were all very good networks. Obviously this is bad news for McGill. There's a bit of prestige involved in having a network based at your university.

"We still play a major role in many of the other networks, even if their offices aren't located here," he adds. "For instance, roughly 25% of the funding for the Mechanical Wood-Pulps Network goes to McGill researchers although that network is based in Ottawa."

Bélanger shares some of Aguayo's concerns. "With the amount of funding that was available for Phase III, it was all but certain that only seven of the 10 networks could go on," says Bélanger. "If we're talking strictly about quality, I don't know if any should have been dropped. It's a bit like a teacher going into a classroom and saying he's going to fail 25% of the students. Even if all the students in the class perform well, 25% will still be failed. Is that fair?"

McGill professor of medicine Dr. Peter Macklem, scientific director of Inspiraplex, says the loss of NCE funding won't necessarily spell the end for his network. "We're going to try to stay alive by seeking out tighter links with industry and I'm reasonably optimistic that we can do it."

The selection committee stated that Inspiraplex research touched on important health concerns for Canadians, but that the work "was less innovative than other groups pursuing similar questions internationally." The committee added that Inspiraplex's training record was spotty. "Few trainees appear to have been hired by industry and employment in general seemed rather low."

Although the news was good for Prasada's network, it could have been better. Some networks will receive funding for seven years, but CITR will get only four more years of NCE support. And that support will decline each year  the network will receive $3.2 million in the first year and only $500,000 in the fourth.

According to the selection committee's report, CITR is doing a fine job of training new researchers in telecommunications, but its research programs "range from world-class to less than internationally competitive."

The committee said that CITR should be attracting more industrial support. "We're going to have to raise more of our money from industry  that's the challenge ahead of us," says Prasada.

He says he and the other professors in CITR "enjoy a very good relationship with our industrial partners," but he is concerned about relying too much on corporate funding. "We try to focus on areas of strategic value for Canada's future  we want to know what tomorrow's technologies are going to be. Companies sometimes just want to focus on making short-term gains."

The Phase III competition involved different stages. Networks were asked to prepare reports outlining their accomplishments and future plans. Panels of experts in related fields scrutinized the reports and made on-site visits. The experts panels then passed on their assessments to the NCE selection committee, the final arbiter of which networks would continue to receive support.

Prasada says his network received much higher marks from the experts panel than it did from the selection committee. The same holds true for the Neuro Science Network. In fact, the members of the experts panel were astonished to learn that Aguayo's team was given a failing grade.

The selection committee described the Neuro Science Network's research as "ranging from outstanding research projects that are clearly internationally competitive to others of lesser quality." The committee added that "the number of trainees finding their way into industry was disappointing." Committee members were also troubled by "the number of projects in Phase II that were abandoned in mid-stream without clear explanations."

"I've been reading our report and the selection committee's remarks side by side and it just doesn't make any sense to me," says Stanford neurobiology professor Eric Shooter, a member of the experts panel. "Either they misunderstood what we said in our report or they misrepresented it. I happen to think that the network is the jewel in the crown of Canadian neuroscience."

"From the reaction we've been getting so far from scientists and our industrial partners, I'm quite sure the network won't die," says Aguayo. But it has been wounded.

"The money for supporting many of our postdoctoral fellows and for paying technicians is gone. That's not only a problem for these people, who might lose their jobs, it's a problem for the research they're involved with. Take away a valuable technician or a trainee and the program is weakened."

He says he'll do all he can to contest the committee's decision. "We are not challenging the peer review system. The peer review system said we had an excellent program."