Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Building a nation of discoverers and innovators
January 15, 2007

Investing in talented people and in research and innovation is more important than ever for Canada, as mature and emerging economies around the world engage in aggressive expansion of their own research and innovation activities.

At the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), our vision is to make Canada a nation of discoverers and innovators. Created by Parliament to promote research, we devote 95 percent of our $900 million annual budget to develop the ideas and talent the country needs to function as a modern technologically advanced nation. We support work in a diverse and expanding array of fields ranging from nanotechnology, mathematics and chemical engineering, to psychology, molecular genetics and ecology. The results of NSERC-funded research affect almost every aspect of the daily lives of Canadians. As well, more than 140 successful companies have their roots in NSERC-funded research. These businesses, which started as university spin-offs, have created nearly 13,000 jobs and produce annual revenues of more than $3.5 billion in Canada.

Virtually every science and engineering student trained in Canada learns from NSERC-funded professors. Many of Canada’s top graduate students receive scholarships from NSERC. For 11,000 professors and 23,000 science and engineering students, NSERC provides the essential fuel for their work, fuel without which there would be no discovery or innovation.

The funding we offer our scientists and engineers, gives them the tools to compete with the best in the world. Collectively, these scientists and engineers are among Canada’s greatest assets—a source of new ideas and insights—and the conduit through which the world’s scientific knowledge is brought into the country and exploited for Canada’s benefit.

NSERC also plays a strategic role in shaping the direction of Canadian research by encouraging businesses, governments and universities to identify and pursue target areas of opportunity and partner with us.

Canadian industry, for example, has come to regard NSERC as an essential partner—a key contributor to its competitiveness and ability to innovate. More than 1,300 companies—including three quarters of the country’s “top 100” R&D performers—annually leverage their research dollars and gain access to university talent through NSERC’s Research Partnerships Programs. Their joint investment now exceeds $190 million annually. Senior managers of these firms say that NSERC projects give them privileged access to top quality future employees and enable their companies to participate in longer-term research.

New landscape, new challenges

Canada has vastly improved its environment and capacity for research in the last decade. In many areas of science, technology, and innovation we are now truly a world-class player. This success has come about through a remarkable cooperation between governments and agencies that fill different niches on the R&D landscape. As the accompanying story about Professor Joerg Bohlmann demonstrates, today’s leading labs depend on many partners and many funders for their success. Dr. Bohlmann, one of Canada’s most promising young scientists, earlier this year was awarded one of NSERC’s prestigious Steacie Fellowships. He came to the University of British Columbia from Germany, attracted in part by the positive research environment in Canada, and by what he has come to believe is one of the best systems for funding research in the world.

The challenge now is to secure and build on what we have created. For me, that means three very important things.

First, we must plan properly for the renewal of our research community. We need to be there for the large numbers of new researchers that universities are hiring, and for our most rapidly rising stars. And we also need to inspire new generations of students to consider careers in science and engineering.

Second, we must coordinate our efforts and resources to support ambitious multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral initiatives of strategic importance to our country.

Finally, and most importantly, we must meet the competition head-on by being first to get our ideas out into the marketplace. We and our partners must work together to harness for Canada the phenomenal burst of creativity that has been unleashed in the last decade.

Much is at stake. Our future depends on how well we mobilize ourselves to prepare our citizens to generate and apply knowledge. The era when nations could prosper on natural resources alone is over. Ideas and their creative application are now the keys to success.

Funding in Action

Touch your finger to the sticky resin on a coniferous tree’s bark, and you could well be tapping into a conversation about how to deal with insect pests or disease. Joerg Bohlmann and his research group have begun to translate this biochemical language of conifer-insect interactions, listening in on exchanges of information that might be crucial to developing innovative, science-based solutions for Canadian forests to prevent the devastating effects of forest insect pests such as the mountain pine beetle.

The University of British Columbia researcher has spent the last five years studying the molecular defences that coniferous trees mount against such threats. This response often takes the form of terpenoids, the hydrocarbon and resin acid compounds that are part of the essential oils produced by many plants, including the resin secreted by coniferous trees.

When beetles attempt to lay eggs producing larvae that will eventually undermine the life-sustaining integrity of conifer bark, for example, a tree’s secretions can begin to include volatile compounds that act as repellents for the beetles, as attractants for the beetles’ natural enemies, or as precursors for bark beetle mass aggregation signals. Dr. Bohlmann has been studying the genes and enzymes leading to these compounds as critical signals in bark beetle attack.

“It’s more than a complicated language”, he explains, pointing out that large woody plants have developed sophisticated chemical defence and communications systems to deal with the many different challenges that could arise during centuries spent in one location. “Coniferous trees can produce hundreds of different forms of these chemicals, and they employ very complex biochemical pathways to get there. This is where our research is going—understanding from a very fundamental point of view the biochemical and molecular genetic mechanisms that control the chemical language of conifer defence, down to the genes that encode it.”

His work has laid the foundations for Canada’s first large-scale initiative dedicated to forestry genomics, Treenomix, and a new Conifer Forest Health genomics program focusing on the defence and resistance of conifers against insect pests. A related undertaking reached a major milestone two years ago, when Dr. Bohlmann and other principal investigators teamed up with U.S. and Swedish counterparts to become the first to unravel the genome of the poplar tree.

On the basis of such success, what began as basic, curiosity-driven activity has grown into an initiative with much broader implications. “The results of our research program can potentially be transformed into enormous economic, social, and environmental value for the long-term sustainability of Canada’s forests,” he says.

As one of six 2006 NSERC Steacie Fellows, he is looking forward to unlocking some of that potential. More specifically, Dr. Bohlmann wants to apply genomic insights that could enable us to control or fend off the attack of insects such as the mountain pine beetle, an infestation now affecting more than 15 million hectares of lodgepole pines in British Columbia and moving into Alberta. Genomics research in conifer forest health can have the same benefits as similar work on infectious diseases affecting humans.

“The ability of government and industry to respond to this current epidemic and future bark beetle epidemics is sharply constrained by our limited understanding of the fundamental genomic processes that control the complex biological interactions of these beetles with their conifer host trees,” he says.

In fact, he adds, the beetles themselves appear to be listening in on the molecular and chemical signals of the trees, selecting those that are not genetically predisposed to offer an effective biochemical defence.

For just this reason, Dr. Bohlmann works closely with entomologists and intends to collaborate with scientists in Vancouver’s world-class Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre to analyse the genetic makeup of the mountain pine beetle. By isolating those features that allow these insects to determine the weakness of some trees and transmit this information, he expects to point the way to new methods of confronting their spread.

“This strategy is analogous to an approach of disarming an enemy by destroying its communications network before or at the start of an assault. We want to use genomics approaches that are entirely new in forest insect pest control to come up with environmentally safe solutions to treat forest diseases at the source of the problem,” he says.

Funding for this research is from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through its Discovery and Strategic programs and student and postdoctoral fellowship programs, from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the British Columbia Knowledge and Development Funds (BCKDF), Genome Canada, Genome BC, the Province of British Columbia, and other sources.

The research group uses laboratory space in the new Michael Smith Laboratories, in the adjacent National Centre of Excellence (NCE), and in the Forest Sciences Centre—using modern equipment and facilities for genomics, microarray gene expression profiling, proteomics sample preparation, plant molecular biology, enzyme biochemistry, and analytics. Together with Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, UBC Wine Research Centre, they have developed a dedicated mass spectrometry laboratory for analysis of small molecules (for example, plant secondary metabolites, signaling compounds) equipped with new GC/MS, GC/FID, radio-GC, and LC/MS instruments.