Who should U.S. emulate in global research race? OH, CANADA!

Asst. Professor Pilar Mendoza

Asst. Professor Pilar Mendoza

To stay afloat as a world economic power, the United States must radically change its model for funding scientific research, says a UF professor who studies higher education issues.


August 11, 2008



Asst. Professor Pilar Mendoza

Asst. Professor Pilar Mendoza

To stay afloat as a world economic power, the United States must radically change its model for funding scientific research, says a UF professor who studies higher education issues.

Canada’s “national networks” model of research funding – which links businesses, government agencies and interest groups in nationwide partnerships – appears to do a much better job of supporting fundamental research and educating graduate students, said Pilar Mendoza, assistant professor in educational administration and policy at UF’s College of Education.

“Here we have a country that is often regarded as America’s cute little brother, and they are actually doing great in terms of research and development,” Mendoza said. “Canada’s
approach has become a model for other countries, and we should consider adopting it here.”

Mendoza conducted her study as part of a fellowship with the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which published her findings in a policy brief in November. She also presented the brief at ASHE’s 2007 national conference in Louisville, Ky. Mendoza has also published findings from the study in The Journal of Higher Education and Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance Monographs.

International comparisons between university systems come naturally to Mendoza, who grew up in Colombia, South America, married a Canadian and has friends and family in Great Britain. Her connections gave her a unique perspective on the United Kingdom’s 2005 move to scrap its Faraday Partnership program – a research funding system based closely on the American model – and make a radical change to the Canadian approach.

Canada’s federal government establishes “national networks” to address scientific problems of public concern – networks that are funded by the national government, with membership open to research institutions, businesses, non-profit organizations and individual researchers at no cost. Members sometimes collaborate on multidisciplinary research projects, but they also share the results of members’ own independent projects through conferences, newsletters and other network-sponsored venues.

By contrast, the United States follows a “research center” model – with federal funds typically going to faculty to build partnerships primarily with companies interested in the research topic. Federal grants are given out in five-year blocks, and centers are expected to find private or state funding sources – usually in the form of membership fees — by the end of
the grant period.

“The Canadian approach strongly reflects their national spirit, which is much more focused on cooperation and positive social outcomes,” Mendoza said. “The American approach is much more focused on immediate economic results.”

Even so, Mendoza says, Canada’s national networks seem to be producing competent social and economic outcomes.

Because Canada’s networks are less focused on specific applied problems, Mendoza said, they are much more likely to conduct research on fundamental scientific problems, as opposed to specific technological applications. While industry has a reputation for being focused on applied research, Mendoza said, industry leaders actually crave – and desperately need – the fundamental research that has traditionally been done by universities.

“Industries come to the academic world because their products fail and they need to understand the fundamental reasons why,” she said. “They come because they need fundamental research to stay competitive with other businesses, and they come because they need to recruit students with a strong grounding in fundamental research.”

The education of graduate students is another place where the Canadian system outshines the American approach, Mendoza said. National networks give graduate students a chance to develop contacts at a wide variety of research institutions, and open to a number of research paths. In American research centers, Mendoza said, graduate students are often limited to contact with a few businesses – and feel strong pressure to produce applied research useful to those businesses.

The quality of the graduate student experience is more significant than many people realize, Mendoza said. In technology-related fields such as science and engineering, the U.S. is already falling behind other countries in its production of master’s and Ph.D. graduates.

“If the U.S. doesn’t do something now, things will be very different 30 years from now,” she said. “Canada seems to be improving its performance in the sciences, but the United States is not doing so well.”

Canada’s national networks have benefits that go beyond the issue of global economic competitiveness, Mendoza notes. Because they draw on a wider variety of academic sources, Mendoza said, national networks tend to have a more socially-conscious approach to research.

“Where an American center might focus on the biology of a new genetically-engineered crop, a Canadian network is more likely to employ researchers in the social sciences to explore the social and ethical implications of a new technology.” Mendoza said.

Mendoza’s position paper is available at: https://education.ufl.edu/news/files/2011/01/Mendoza_brief.pdf

— Tim Lockette