Departing NSERC president Mario Pinto says agency in good shape as he returns to academia

Mark Henderson
September 26, 2018

Its mission accomplished – with caveats – for Dr Mario Pinto as the president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) takes his leave from the granting council one year short of his five-year term to return to academia. Under Pinto’s watch and with the assistance of the Liberal administration, research funding for universities has entered a second renaissance while colleges and polytechnics have made major strides in their quest to be recognized as unique contributors to the country’s research and innovation ecosystems.

Budget 2018 pumped $90.1 million ongoing in new funding into NSERC as part of a major reinvestment in the granting councils and the agency is working to strengthen ties with its sister agencies and expand its reach internationally. All to say, it’s a great time to be president of NSERC.

So why is Pinto leaving and on such short notice? In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY three days prior to his departure on September 21, Pinto says the reason isn’t really that mysterious.

“I had only intended to do one term as president and to accomplish a certain task based on our strategic plan. So I took the job (and) we achieved what I set out to do … My term ends at election time so I thought it was only fair given the time it takes to search for a new president that I made the decision now ,” says Pinto. “Coming to NSERC was a particular challenge because I saw an opportunity to really craft a research agenda that would resonate not only with diverse stakeholders but with parliamentarians. I think we have accomplished that. We achieved historic investment in the research agenda and there’s a great deal of congruency between our strategic goals to 2020 and the research agenda that was funded in Budget 2018 … Having seen that through, now I think is the opportune time to step down.”

A chemist by training, Pinto came to NSERC from Simon Fraser Univ after a 31-year career capped with a stint as VP research, pledging to institute a management style that was “multidisciplinary and fluid, unfettered by tradition”. Over the past four years, he says he’s been largely successful in implementing this approach, citing the increase in partnership types the agency is now pursuing and a stronger focus on collaboration with NSERC’s sister agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“With our new program architecture, we will expand to different types of partners. Traditionally we have dealt with industrial partners but now you will see an expansion to other federal government departments, municipalities, provincial agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” says Pinto. “This is very important. For example, when dealing with Indigenous groups one has to be cognizant of the fact that we have to be a bit more fluid in accepting traditional knowledge, traditional ways of doing research. And that may entail investment in NGOs and expanding our eligibility criteria … With NRC we’ve tackled together developing quantum technologies for Canada.”

In his four years at NSERC’s helm, Pinto bridged the governments of Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau and witnessed a major course correction in federal support for academic research. The Liberal election victory in October/15 came with powerful new emphases on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). The result has unleashed a tsunami of change in academia.

“All in all I have achieved what we set out to do as per the strategic plan along the five themes, and then get traction on those five themes and get government investments,” says Pinto. “What I would like to take on as my next challenge is a senior academic position in a leading university. With the knowledge that I have amassed and learned over the years, that’s where I can make the biggest impact now.

Tri-Council Collaboration

Pinto is particularly satisfied with progress made to align and strengthen ties with SSHRC and CIHR, although he cites it as an area where there’s room for even more improvement. One-off tri-agency collaboration has occurred in the past and certain back-end administrative functions have been merged. But there are new efforts being made to deepen ties and try new approaches spurred by the Budget announcement of $275 million for a new Tri-Council Fund designed by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee. The fund will usher in some major changes to how NSERC and the other granting councils assess and select projects.

“We finally have the opportunity to entertain risk within the mandate of the three agencies. We’ve always been risk averse, mainly because of financial constraints but we finally have the opportunity to embrace a certain level of risk … That will also involve culture change among our stakeholders to think very differently,” says Pinto. “Internally, this will involve a complete re-vamp of the peer review system to embrace risk and to not necessarily disfavour early career researchers. We heard in our consultations from many (ECRs) who said, “Listen if you don’t change the peer review system you’re going to get the same old same old biases.’ So we are exploring at their suggestion different forms of peer review and I think that will be a challenge for my successor and for the other agency presidents as well – working together to implement those programs.”

On the international front, NSERC has been busy, with high-level visits, roadshows, sharing of best practices and interchanges that give substance to the Going Global theme of its current strategic plan. Pinto says NSERC’s increase in international stature has also been enhanced by his chairmanship in 2017 of the Global Research Council – a virtual body “comprised of the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world, dedicated to promote the sharing of data and best practices for high-quality collaboration among funding agencies worldwide”.

“My role on the governing council and chairmanship last year on the (GRC) allowed us to establish some very deep relationships with 17 other countries. That is serving us well as we go forward with the implementation on the tri-agency fund to explore international initiatives,” he says. “ (This) week Alfred LeBlanc (VP communications, corporate and international affairs) will represent NSERC in the UK and I have just returned from Brazil having established some relationships. That has continued with a variety of countries – Germany, India, and so on. The experience has brought a great deal of respect to NSERC and (allowed us) to entertain sustainable initiatives ... And for the first time we will have financial backing to entertain international initiatives and that is significant.”

While Pinto is gratified by the progress made over the past four years, and grateful for the support and direction provided by the government, he says he’s confident that NSERC will survive and thrive following his return to academia.

“I have great confidence in the team I’ve left behind; that they will be able to act on those plans we have put in place and realize the investments that have been given to us. I don’t expect any halting of activities. If anything we’re ready to go and implement.”

NSERC Annual Budget ($ billions)

2018-2019 $1.33*
2017-18 $1.22
2016-17 $1.20
2015-16 $1.10
2014-15 $1.10

* includes $76.9 million in new funding from Budget 2018, subject to Treasury Board approval


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