Cash Crunch at NSERC

If you are one of the many researchers that have been madly writing equipment grant applications for the upcoming Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) competition, you may have received a nasty little surprise last week. It seems that NSERC is running out of money, and fast.

Last week, NSERC President Tom Brzustowski posted a memo on the organization's Web site, stating that NSERC "cannot assure the availability of funds for successful applications for Major Installations, Major Equipment, or regular equipment (now called Research Tools and Instruments) in the upcoming competition." More specifically (and more ominously), Brzustowski's memo also stated, "in the absence of new funds, the budget available for the above categories may be limited or zero."

Facing pressure from an ever-increasing number of applicants and a lack of new funding injections in recent years, NSERC is finding that it just doesn't have enough cash to go around. It doesn't help that NSERC was left off the list of granting agencies that received a generous boost in funding from the federal government this year. And if the overall budget remains unchanged for the next fiscal year, says NSERC's Arnet Sheppard, then the "Council will most likely be forced to transfer some, and possibly all, of the money that would have been awarded in the current equipment competitions to new applicants instead."

NSERC's funding woes continue despite the federal government's earlier promise for increased spending on research and development. In January 2001, the government announced in the Speech from the Throne that it will at least double the current federal investment in research and development over the next 10 years, in order to place Canada in the top five countries for research and development performance. "We are working very hard to find some new money for NSERC," said Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development Gilbert Normand in an interview with Next Wave Canada, adding that the government is well aware of the Council's dwindling budget. Normand also revealed that he would meet with federal Finance Minister Paul Martin and Brzustowski early in November to discuss the budget crisis and a multiyear strategy for funding.

But Normand could not say whether or not any money would materialize in time for the next fiscal year, which begins on 1 April 2002, or for the current round of applicants. He explained that while the federal government intends to honor its pledge for increased spending in R&D, that pledge covers the next 10 years and may not be a fiscal priority for next year.

The recent events in global terrorism have put further strain on already tight federal finances, and the extent to which funding for science and technology will be affected remains to be seen. But in an effort to reassure the scientific community, Normand says the government recognizes that "this is not the time to cut the budget for the sciences." "We [the government] have made certain priorities: firstly to reduce indirect costs of research that academic institutions face, and secondly to help the commercialization of research discoveries at the academic, industry, and provincial levels," he tells Next Wave. The point being, of course, that the development of globally competitive industries and, in turn, a strong economy, depend on the basic research that's funded by agencies like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and NSERC.

Next Wave Canada will keep you posted on the unfolding discussions. But in the meanwhile, Canada's up-and-coming science and engineering researchers wait anxiously to see if the government is prepared to put its money where its mouth is, or if all of those hours spent laboring over equipment grants were really a waste of time.

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