Kudos to the tri-agency Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) for finally doing the right thing and offering the prospect of renewed support to deserving networks beyond the current funding limits of three, five-year terms. Pushback against the NCE sunset clause is not new. In fact, the issue has reared up repeatedly over the years as successful networks lamented that a lack of core funding would stifle their ability to contribute to research and innovation.
The latest NCE competition removed the sunset clause for the first time, although the Stem Cell Network (SCN) found a solution by bypassing the NCE’s standard competition and peer review and going directly to government for more funding. AUTO 21 was not so fortunate, finally closing its doors in 2016 after a 15-year run.
And ArcticNet, arguably one of the most high-profile and influential NCEs, was facing termination prior to the latest competition — a fate that could now be avoided if it succeeds in competing for scarce NCE funds to expand its sphere of R&D, and impact, both socially and geographically.
After accepting the inevitable, AUTO21 scientific director and CEO, Dr Peter Frise characterized the sunset clause as illogical and inexplicable, arguing that Canada needs to “scale up successful NCEs and do it at an important level … Don’t shut it down regardless of impact”.
The opportunity to remove the sunset clause was strengthened when Science minister Kirsty Duncan raised the issue at a House standing committee. Referring to the SCN and the review of fundamental science, Duncan asked: “Is there something that needs to be available afterwards?”
For nearly three decades, the NCE program has been a remarkable force for collaborative research in areas of critical social and economic performance. Successful networks will now have the opportunity to continue with their good work as long as they meet the program’s criteria and pass muster in a rigorous peer review.
Let’s hope this change is sufficient to support these critical national resources. Like Humpty Dumpty, they won’t be so easy to put back together after they’ve broken apart.
Mark Henderson, Editor