In fact, the granting council presidents kicked off the first plenary session with some thought-provoking ideas about how new NCEs should take shape as the NCE program enters its second phase. Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said that while the NCE program has achieved a lot, "I think we can do better by profiting from lessons learned in the first 15 years of this very successful program."
He said that the NCE program has two major pitfalls. Firstly, he said, too much time is wasted by very busy people preparing full applications for networks that don't get funded. Secondly, he said, too few new networks, proposing entirely novel research, get funded.
He questioned the current structure of NCEs and asked people to ponder whether networks should change their focus.
Dr. Brzustowski said that in the next phase of the program, he would like to see better-funded networks and a program that is twice the size. He would also like to see the funding of, "networks that address emerging issues and opportunities for Canadians" and ones that, "create collective and individual wealth-generating capacity to invest in areas that benefit our society."
Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, agreed that, "a lot has happened in the last 15 years" since the NCE program was created. In terms of science, the human genome has been mapped, words like proteomics, genomics and stem cell biology have entered the lexicon and the funding landscape has changed.
With the annual budget for the NCE program at $77 million, Dr. Bernstein asked, "as a country, are we focused enough or are we fooling ourselves?" He questioned whether the government is spreading money across too many sectors and too many areas of a sector.
And, he added, it's hard to justify an overlap of funding between networks and CIHR institutes focused on the same things.
Reflecting on the change in leadership in the Prime Minister's Office, Dr. Bernstein said that Paul Martin has always been a big supporter of the NCE program and, while he favours strong funding for research in Canada, he also wants a return on investment.
As for the future of the NCE program, Dr. Bernstein said that Canada is at a, "unique moment" because there has been, "amazing convergence of disciplines around health."
"We ignore the need for a multidisciplinary approach at our peril. Why are networks inward-looking when science is outward?" Dr. Bernstein asked. "We know how to talk to each other now. Maybe we need to put more emphasis on talking to the rest of the world. We need to think about where science and research has evolved globally since 1989."
Marc Renaud, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), told the NCE meeting that he wants to see more funding for networks that focus on social sciences and humanities.
The SSHRC is also reviewing its own role in the research community by conducting a massive review of its program at campuses across Canada from January to April 2004, he said.
Other featured speakers at the NCE meeting included Jay Ingram, former host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks and host of Discovery Channel TV's Daily Planet, who discussed promoting science to the news media, and Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia, who called on networks to think globally and reach out to international partners.
The remainder of the meeting involved breakout sessions on topics such as management, communications and commercialization. Speakers from the U.K., France and Norway also discussed scientific networking in their respective countries.
(story excerpt from CSN newsletter Brainwaves, December 2003)