NSERC president Mario Pinto presents a new vision­ for innovation and R&D in Canada.

The president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC), Mario Pinto, notes proudly that he is a “fourth-generation chemist.” In 1896 his great-grandfather emigrated to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from the Portuguese colony of Goa and established the country’s first apothecary. His hefty mortar and pestle is on prominent display in Pinto’s office.

Pinto’s grandfather followed in the family business, with his father becoming a forensic chemist who studied at Cambridge. But it was an “amazing high school teacher” in Toronto who steered the teenaged Pinto to chemistry after the family came to Canada in 1966.
Awarded his PhD from Queen’s University in 1980, Pinto did post-doctoral work in France and at the National Research Council before starting a 30-year career at Simon Fraser University. In 2004 he became SFU vice-president of research for two five-year terms, ending with his appointment as NSERC president in November 2014. 

He continued an active research program during his time as SFU vice-president, with a particular interest in ethnobotany and molecular mimicry. Among other results this approach led to synthesizing the molecule for the active ingredient in a plant root used to treat diabetes in Sri Lanka. Since his appointment, the 63-year-old Pinto has been criss-crossing Canada for consultations with researchers about a new strategic plan called NSERC 2020, which was released this past December.    

The new vision for NSERC 2020 is “to make Canada a country of discoverers and innovators for the benefit of all Canadians.” What does this mean in terms of how NSERC will operate?

Our mission really focuses on investment in discovery research laying the foundation — being very bold, being very edgy, being less risk-averse — so that we can probe the frontiers and give our researchers the freedom to explore. The whole strategy we’ve put forward speaks to a dynamic exchange between discovery and innovation so that faculty can work in an informed way and industry can work in an informed way. 

Doesn’t a less risk-averse approach mean you have to have a lower success rate in grant applications? 

Everything we do is through merit-based peer review. If the peers are conservative and risk-adverse, they will look for applications that are risk-averse. If we can somehow change the culture so that these evaluation groups themselves entertain higher-risk projects then we will gradually change the [outcome.] We just have to push the boundaries a little bit more.

How do you do that?

You send out the message that this behaviour will be looked upon favourably and we have incentives in place, called the Discovery Accelerator Supplement, which we can tailor now to higher-risk efforts. 

But this doesn’t grow the pie.

We must grow the pie. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we are underfunded, dramatically underfunded. And if we want to remain competitive with other nations we are going to have to increase that level of funding. It’s time to perhaps take a critical look at investment in boutique programs and invest in the core mandate of the Tri-Council. 

Boutique programs? You mean …

The one-offs, the programs that will tend to profit a certain percentage of the faculty complement but not the general faculty complement.

You’ll be dealing with a government that’s committed to running deficits for three years. In such austerity times, wouldn’t it make sense for the three granting councils to make a joint approach to government?

The critical piece is looking across the ecosystem and realizing that we have a structural flaw. Young researchers are now starting their independent academic careers at greater than age 36 for NSERC, greater than 42 for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) community. It’s a disaster, because the most formative years, the most innovative, high-impact years, of an academic are in those early years. As far as the NSERC population is concerned, only eight percent of our faculty is funded under the age of 36; it used to be 28 percent when NSERC started in 1978. In CIHR, it’s about five percent and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is about 11 percent. If you don’t hire that young cohort until that age, you can imagine the downstream effects and the multiplier effects. It’s a lost generation. So we have put forward a brief jointly, calling this the ‘generational gap.’

Doesn’t the core of the problem lie with provincial underfunding for universities?

We’ve seen a migration to teaching faculty and the use of sessional instructors or contract workers. But one has to realize that part of that has been done in response to federal initiatives: the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, where these individuals have teaching relief to pursue their research activities. Understandably the universities had to bridge that gap. They did so with teaching faculty and contract workers who do not necessarily contribute to the research and innovation agenda. So is it likely that the provinces will come to the aid of the universities? Perhaps in the long term, but in the shorter term I think it requires an intervention federally as was done in the 1980s under the University Research Fellowship Program. That’s exactly what we’re proposing — that NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC invest in bridging positions — with a slight twist. We’re proposing that we invest in the individuals and that unlike the 1980s, where the awards were linked to universities, that the awards now be linked to the individual and that they become free agents.

And like sports players they go broker the deal with…

With different universities. Now this is just a proposal, I have to emphasize. We have to discuss further with the universities. 

But to do it in the numbers that you’ve been talking about would require a fair whack of new money, right?

Yes, and that’s the subject of the “ask” for the Tri-Council, not just for NSERC. The other aspect is the following. People get discouraged and leave and so when Canada has invested in these individuals: the Tri-Council fellowships for graduate school, the Tri-Council postdoctoral fellowship, then Canada loses them. Most of my students are working in the United States. Quite spectacular students. It’s the lost investment. One has invested in these individuals and does not capture the dividends. Someone else does. These people are not going to hang around doing indefinite post docs. Especially women. Of the eight percent under the age of 36, one percent are women. We have to do much better. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.