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Suzanne Fortier and research at McGill: what’s next?

Since the announcement of Suzanne Fortier, former president of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), as McGill’s next principal, concerns have arisen regarding Fortier’s impact at NSERC and how such an impact could further affect research at McGill.

McGill’s Board of Governors (BoG) announced on Mar. 5 that Fortier, who resigned from her post as president of NSERC on Mar. 4, will be taking the position of principal at McGill beginning in Sept. 2013. Current Principal Heather Munroe-Blum will step down on Jun. 30, and an acting principal will be appointed to serve from then until the beginning of Fortier’s term.

Various media outlets, such as The Montreal Gazette, raised concerns  about a decrease in funding for basic research and a significant increase in funding for applied research during Fortier’s time at NSERC.

In the world of science, there exists a distinction between basic research and applied research. Basic research—also known as ‘pure’ or ‘fundamental’ research—is largely curiosity driven and is not necessarily intended to invent something of monetary value. Applied research, on the other hand, has pre-defined purposes and often strives to solve practical problems by creating or inventing solutions.

“I view basic research as the effort to increase our understanding of nature,” Robert Brandenberger, a professor in the department of physics at McGill, said. “For example, we are interested in finding a description of the early universe, an understanding of the origin of structure in the universe, and we would like to know what the basic constituents of matter are. Applied research aims to develop new tools for society [and] new devices for society.”

Basic research is much more prevalent at research-intensive universities, such as McGill, with applied research playing a more minor role.

“It’s true that basic, curiosity-driven research remains the lifeblood of any research-intensive university,” Rose Goldstein, vice-principal (research and international relations) said. “In particular, McGill is very committed to the importance of basic research.”

At McGill, the majority of basic and applied research is funded by various external sources, such as federal agencies like NSERC. A small part of funding comes from “special McGill internal grants,” according to Brandenberger, with all other research relying on the external agencies.

“Funding for research is mainly [achieved] through applications from the researchers themselves to government agencies,” Goldstein said. “We apply to other agencies, but mostly to [the] federal government—[for] over 50 per cent [of funding]—and about 20 per cent of [funding comes from the] provincial government. Most of that is [put towards] basic research.”

“When it comes to research that is funded by businesses.… that is the minority of the research—less than 20 per cent [of funding comes from businesses],” she said.

Fortier, in her role as principal next year, will not have control over which sources provide funding for research at McGill.

“It’s not an internal university decision,” Goldstein said. “It’s the funders externally who decide which projects they’re going to fund.”

According to Adam Bouchard, academic affairs officer for the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), students are often less concerned about whether their research is considered basic or applied.

“As graduate students, we just see it as the research we’re doing at the time,” Bouchard said. “The research I’m doing can be applied, but we’re not applying it. I know a lot of people who are doing things that are called ‘pure,’ but realistically, we’re not seeing that global picture. We’re working on our individual projects.”

Even if concerns about research funding were to arise among faculty, they would be raised with the external agency that funded the research, not the university.

“Since the funding for our research is mainly external, we need to raise our concerns externally, maybe as a group of McGill faculty,” Brandenberger said.

According to Goldstein, despite the changes towards applied research at NSERC, Fortier’s imminent arrival should not be a cause for concern, but rather— considering her commitment to research—welcomed.

“She’s a research-intensive graduate, [a] researcher herself, who has worked at excellent research-intensive universities … and has led our premier Natural Science Engineering Research Council,” Goldstein said. “She is a research leader, and so it bodes well for research intensiveness and research excellence at McGill, because that’s also what she represents.”

Goldstein also expressed that having Fortier as principal will reinforce McGill’s traditional values and identity.

“McGill is a top, research-intensive university … that’s what we are, that’s what we have maintained in the last few years, and that’s what we strive to be even better at,” Goldstein continued. “I see [that as] our identity; that’s always been our identity.”

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