Measuring the success of research

Measuring the success of research

March 1, 2005

By the very nature of research, one cannot know where it will lead. One cannot predict when or what research will lead to a discovery or outcomes that have meaning or application.

Researchers may know what they're looking for, a solution to a problem, or an idea to be developed, but they cannot know with certainty what they may discover through exploration and experimentation. Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt's chief science advisor during World War II and Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, knew this half a century ago, and it was this insight that framed the epoch restructuring of the American scientific enterprise. Yet the case bears revisiting.

Take a challenge such as that of finding means of prevention and cure for HIV/AIDS. As a health and humanitarian issue, it is vast and urgent. Related research is being conducted by countless research teams in university and commercial laboratories. Research centres around the world have generously shared their growing knowledge in a global race against time. Many millions will die before a cure is found, and millions more dollars will be invested in research. If focus, will, and talent could guarantee a quick, positive result we would already have closed the book on HIV/AIDS. Yet we remain optimistic.

When I was a first-year epidemiology graduate student in 1979, we were told that the era of infectious diseases was over, that as epidemiologists our work would concern the "man-made" diseases—cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorder, cancer. That was before the return of tuberculosis and polio, before HIV/AIDS, before SARS, and a generation of aggressive viruses and bacteria.

Understandably, the great uncertainty of research can be a source of anxiety or frustration, not only for those conducting the research, but also for those who provide the funds that make research possible. While tempting, it would be a mistake to think that you can measure success by quantifiable means alone, such as the number of discoveries, inventions, or economic spin-offs that arise, though these are clearly important.

Indeed, in Canada's universities, the most dramatic contribution of research is the quality and preparation of our graduates. By bringing more research into the classroom, we enrich the learning experiences of our undergraduate as well as our graduate students. The benefits for our students are certain, but perhaps somewhat difficult to quantify.

Success in research is more elusive than accounting measures will capture, and history is rife with breakthroughs that were made mostly by accident, as well as with the "sure thing" that never paid off. As Bush wrote in 1945 in Science: The Endless Frontier: "One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance. Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind." Fifty years later, the U.S. is still reaping the rewards of this vision.

Good research aims to predict future directions, not imitate the past. Innovations in technology and treatment have happened as often as not as an unanticipated consequence of creativity and experimentation, often borne of a somewhat random chain of research discoveries and interactions, sometimes spanning generations of research.

In one famous result of the research chain, James Watson and Francis Crick shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery of the structure of DNA. But they did not work alone. Their work at Cambridge was somewhat serendipitously and very dramatically informed by others—most especially by an x-ray diffraction crystallographer named Rosalind Franklin who happened to work in a nearby lab. Her work on DNA molecule structure was critical to their eventual breakthrough. Many of the breakthrough discoveries will come, as they have to this point, on the research paths that criss-cross our universities.

There is no more compelling issue facing Canadian universities today than to win in the fierce worldwide competition for talent. We must continue to strive for global quality and profile in our research and teaching endeavours. We must continue to search for the breakthroughs that will lead to social and economic benefits for Canadians. A recent world ranking of universities ranked three Canadian universities in the top 100, with McGill ranking 13th in the world in the publicly-funded category. Our goal at McGill is to become one of the top 10 public universities globally. We are each year repatriating talented Canadians, such as geneticist Tom Hudson and physicist Vicky Kaspi, as well as attracting those who are new to Canada.

We have a rich and diversified system of universities in Canada—a superb and cherished Canadian resource. But Canada's future depends on having several universities that rank with the very best in the world.

So how do we get there?

Over the past several years innovation investments in university talent and research have had a profound impact in nurturing a culture and critical mass of excellence at universities across the country. But we must continue. An ambitious teaching and research culture needs facilities and the ability to attract superb professors and promising students. The eureka moment does not occur in a vacuum. A discovery may occur by accident, but the culture of excellence is a shared and realized vision.

The Canada Research Chairs, the CFI, the growth in the funding councils, and Genome Canada have been critical in this regard. As their investments move towards necessary levels, they will allow us to better bring the benefits of our research to students and to the market through broader commercialization and many other means of broad dissemination of their impact, including cultural, teaching, and policy initiatives.

Canada is on the right path—a path of great promise. We must maintain the momentum.

Heather Munroe-Blum is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at McGill University.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.