AUCC report makes the case for continued and enhanced funding for university research

Guest Contributor
October 29, 2008

Momentum fulfills 2002 commitment

Canada's universities are hoping a new dynamic model for capturing the impact of university research will help to persuade the federal government that continuing investment to the country's future economic and social well being, despite a catastrophic downturn in global financial markets and a looming recession.

The model — developed by Dr Fernand Martin at the Univ of Montreal — estimates that the "dynamic impact of universities' contributions to the economy through R&D to be at least $60 billion". The most far-reaching attempt to capture the value of university-based research is contained in the 2008 Momentum report from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), which was released during an annual meeting of more than 60 university presidents in Ottawa last week.

The collapse of financial markets domestically and around the world have raised concern about the ability and/or willingness of governments to adequately fund university research, with new data confirming that the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s are over (see page 4). The Momentum report offers a far more optimistic perspective on this current environment, although it details the pressures and challenges that must be addressed if Canada is to compete in the rapidly evolving global knowledge economy.

The AUCC is positioning the university sector as a critical contributor to many aspects of Canadian society — a role it contends becomes even more important as the impacts of the economic downturn sink in.

"There's a strong sense that governments and communities are looking to universities to help weather these tough economic times. A public policy debate is needed," says Michelle Gauthier, AUCC's director of research and policy analysis. "A decade of investments have positioned universities to weather the situation … We need to maintain and enhance. We've come a long way and we need to work with partners to get through this situation."

Gauthier adds that Finance minister Jim Flaherty addressed the AUCC gathering and expressed support for the role of university research.

The Momentum report stems from a 2002 commitment the AUCC made to the then-Liberal government during national consultations on the Innovation Agenda. At that time, it committed its members to doubling research performance and tripling the commercialization of university intellectual property (IP). An initial progress report was issued in 2005 (R$, November 7/05) followed by the current iteration, which downplays the progress on its commitments while foregrounding the role of universities in forging partnerships with industry and government and the wide ranging benefits of its research (see charts).

"Universities have had to allocate more than 90 percent more funds from their operating budgets than in 1993 to finance the unfunded costs of conducting research ... The required level of investment to fund all university R&D costs remains an important topic of debate." — 2008 Momentum Report

"It totally avoids the issue of commercialization which was the whole raison d'être for it," says Ron Freedman, principal of The Impact Group and co-publisher of RE$EARCH MONEY. "It takes the AUCC almost 140 pages to get around to discussing commercialization. They buried the lead in the back of the report."

While the AUCC contends that it's still "on track" to meet its original commitments, Gauthier says much has changed in the last six years leading to a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of university research.

"There are the benefits to partners of university research and people in training," she says. "We need to be adaptable and flexible and apply knowledge to all sectors of society."

The bulk of the report describes how university research will be impacted by what it terms five drivers of change:

* the heightened recognition worldwide of the critical links between university R&D and national prosperity/quality of life;

* the global race to attract and retain research talent and highly qualified university graduates;

* the growing costs and complexity of the university research enterprise; and,

* the strong impetus to partner across institutional, sectoral and geographic boundaries.

Momentum also soft pedals the long standing AUCC push to increase funding for the indirect or institutional costs of university research. The report notes that rate of support for institutional costs is stuck at 25% compared to 52% for the US. But it does not comment on the problems this causes institutions which must cover the shortfall with operating funds required elsewhere.

"(Institutional costs) are a a long standing concern for the AUCC," says Gauthier, adding that there is pressure for more knowledge mobilization and commercialization. "Discussions are underway to move the institutional costs agenda forward. We need to help our key partners understand what this money is used for. It's a key issue."


University innovation targets

Commercialization Income ($ millions)
2010 (target)70.2   
Doubling of Research ($ billions)
2010 (target)14.2 *
* inflation factored in

Commercialization capacity

($ millions)
Contextual Indicators1999  2006  %       
Operational Expenditures on IP Management22.0   42.5   93.2   
Disclosures893.0   1,356   51.8   
New Patent Applications656.0   1,442   119.8   
Number of Spin-Offs718.0   1,068   48.7   
New Licences232.0   437   88.4   
Value of Industrial Research Contracts153.8   370.5   140.9   
Source: AUCC Momentum Reports 2005 & 2008

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