Academic Freedom and Targeted Research

By: Brian Pratt, Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Saskatchewan

I am biting my nails in anticipation of my NSERC-Discovery Grant application, just like the hundreds of other academic scientists applying for renewal or their first grant. Will I be able to hire summer undergraduate student assistants? Will I have enough for us to get into the remote mountains by helicopter? Can my graduate students travel to conferences and present their work? Actually, I have done fairly well by the NSERC-DG system since I got my first one in 1990, and I am confident I will keep my program going for at least another five years. But I would not want to be a new and untested faculty member with no connections; or someone whose productivity has declined or whose graduate student supervision has lapsed, even temporarily, for the consequences may not be pretty. For the fairly paltry sums dished out, the bar has been raised too high.

To tell you the truth, I have no desire to do only research that is prescribed by the kind of funding received through targeted programs and outright grants or contracts from corporate donors or sponsors. This is because I do not want to be in any way under the thumb of private industry—been there, done that. My research is apparently not squarely in one of “Canada’s research priorities”—oh, I could try to lever it in, but it would be a stretch. It is not “interdisciplinary” as defined by policy-makers and administrators—although I freely cross boundaries and scales, and we all know that geology is the most diverse scientific subject going. I do not need to maintain a laboratory full of equipment that others might use—although I like access to state-of-the-art facilities such as the synchrotron. Most of my work is not in support of the petroleum industry—although lots of it is relevant, and my students surface with highly sought-after skills. Yet, my publications have, in their intangible ways, helped stimulate oil and gas discoveries.

Fortunately, scientists like me are still important in the NSERC-DG system, even though we may not be flourishing. This system is still unique, in that it funds your research program not a proposed research project. Open-ended and flexible versus specific and goal-oriented. This subtle but major difference from other granting agencies is highly admired by outsiders, especially our U.S. colleagues who have been starved of NSF funding. You have intellectual freedom. You can explore avenues you never thought of, make discoveries you never predicted, let ideas gestate, take your time to be thorough, even suffer failure. I helped write the world’s best selling geology textbook above the introductory level—I could not have done that without the liberty to roam that was given me by my NSERC-DG. (By the way, all profits from that book selflessly go to the Geological Association of Canada!)

I wish more academic science were funded this way. Sure, rumour has it that policy-makers felt the NSERC-DG system was not competitive enough. I disagree: one may forget that to get a faculty position at a major university is typically a highly, even painfully, competitive process, at least in relatively open competitions with a reasonable pool of applicants. When policy-makers and administrators think they know better about scientific research than those who do it, we are losing a kind of academic freedom that had been put in place by wise forebears, that has proven itself over and over again.

We can help change this, by talking to politicians about the pros and cons of targeted funding, extolling the NSERC-DG system to the general public, and educating all and sundry on the value of ‘blue sky’ research (think penicillin). Our peers who serve on grant selection committees may need gentle reminding that they too were once neophytes with not much of a track record. If research productivity is written into promotion standards, as it usually is, there has to be enough money available on a competitive and fair basis.

Ten years ago I was taking a harbour cruise in San Diego. The guide pointed to a row of new guided missile destroyers moored at the pier and proudly announced what they cost. One single warship was twice NSERC’s total annual funding for all the thousands of academic scientists and engineers, plus their graduate students and their post-doctoral fellows. And this was utterly dwarfed by the cost of the Nimitz class aircraft carrier lying at anchor out in the bay. We do have the freedom to change.

About VOX

VOX is a forum for the expression of opinions of members of the USFA on topics of general interest to the membership. Submissions to be considered for publication should be sent to the USFA office to the attention of the VOX Editorial Board or they may be sent by email to, or to any member of the Editorial Board.

VOX is sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association and is published by an independent Editorial Board, whose members are:
George Khachatourians
Brian Pratt
Howard Woodhouse

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