After the March 2013 federal budget, our chemical sciences and engineering community seemed to be staying mum on what the academic research community had received. Perhaps the changes made by the Conservative government and carried out by the granting councils over the past several years were sinking in for the research community — and are being accepted reluctantly by those who have missed out and more enthusiastically by those receiving grants. A significant change has come about. There is still considerable funding for basic research but the competition for Discovery Grants and other programs is much more intensive. There are no more guarantees.

Just five years ago, established researchers were pretty much assured of continuous funding with about an 85 per cent renewal success rate; today renewals have dropped to around 70 per cent. And one can guess they might drop even lower. This is still a good renewal rate, but if you are the one losing out, it’s a different feeling. Funding applications that worked in the past for good, steady researchers now have much more limited success. One of the reasons, I am told, is that there is a continuous stream of new, enthusiastic “rising star” researchers working hard to establish their careers — and finding significant success with grant applications. Another factor is that more established researchers are staying beyond the former mandatory retirement age of 65, and are also successfully winning grants.

Is this increased competition a good thing for the research community, for universities and ultimately for Canadian society? After all, top researchers should be able to draw top students and this should translate into spiralling cutting-edge research and innovation possibilities, improved university standings internationally and, ultimately, all those things that should help improve our society.

We’re no strangers to competition in the western world, especially in the commercial realm. Just think of Blackberry and NOKIA at the top of the cell phone industry a mere 10 years ago — and then along came Apple and Samsung. You can bet all of these companies have searched for and hired top researchers. But there is much more than good research taking companies forward. Like a leading NHL team, successful companies need a combination of star performers in many categories (research, business innovation and development, marketing) and the steady players that are the foundation. Likewise, NHL teams have never won Stanley Cups based on just their first line superstars; the second, third and fourth lines are always recognized as are the coaches, general managers and others down to the equipment handlers.

In universities we can’t just have the superstars doing the flashiest research, and leaving others in their dust; the less sexy problems need to be looked at to support the star researchers getting all the hype (and much of the money). And although competition makes the superstars rise to the top, we have to be careful not to swing the pendulum too far since, let’s face it, the “betterment of society” doesn’t necessarily follow all the rules of commercial competition. There has to be some intelligent oversight and the granting councils have to reflect that.

In terms of research funding and management systems, Canadian universities have not changed much in the last several decades. Perhaps a pooling of resources from the funds of successful applicants is part of the answer if it’s time to think more team-concept versus individual researcher achievements. It’s time to focus on how competition can make us better, and it’s up to the leaders of change to articulate that vision.