Canada’s colleges and institutes ready to play greater role in applied research
May 28, 2001
A concerted push by Canada’s colleges and institutes to play a greater role in the innovation system is being accelerated by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) with an action plan to raise awareness of current R&D activity, increase participation and attract a larger share of funding. The action plan is being developed by a recently formed task group on college and institute research, chaired by Dr Ron Woodward, president of Red Deer College and former president of both the Saskatchewan Research Council and the Science Council of British Columbia.
The focus of the plan will be developed at a workshop this week at the ACCC annual conference in Windsor ON, building upon a research symposium that the organization held in Ottawa in February. The task group will report its findings in one year. The group will also be stepping up efforts to lobby the federal and provincial governments for more recognition and funding for R&D. And it will attempt to build stronger ties with the university community to increase interaction and to alleviate concerns that increased R&D funding for colleges will occur at the expense of university research funding.
The ACCC is also conducting an electronic survey to try and get a better handle on the level and funding sources of research activity at the college level. There are currently no statistics on how much R&D that colleges perform. But it’s the belief that the overwhelming majority tends to be applied research given the historical mandate and focus of colleges.
“We will likely find that the vast majority of research is industry based, that a significant majority is in the natural sciences and engineering and is funded by industry,” says Woodward. “I’ve believed for many years that colleges should play a greater role but we need to overcome the perception that R&D and innovation are the exclusive pur-view of the university folks.”
Woodward estimates that between $100 million and $200 million of R&D is performed by colleges annually. And because many of the institutions are small in size, much of the research is interdisciplinary and conducted in conjunction with area businesses. Significant exceptions are beginning to occur, however, with larger firms recognizing the contributions colleges can make towards their R&D and human resources requirements. Earlier this year Cisco Systems established a research chair in network engineering technology at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the first endowed chair at a post-secondary technical institute in Canadian history.
1) Partner with NRC/IRAP program
2) Celebrate successes
3) Create venture capital fund
for building research capacity
4) Increase representation on
funding agency boards
5) Articulate value of
college applied research
6) Create pan Canadian network of
colleges and institutes
“In Alberta, college R&D ranges from theoretical research on the age of fossils in glaciated areas to laser research,” says Woodward. “In Quebec, there are 18 technology transfer offices in its colleges. If we’re going to get both respect and money we have to be able to demonstrate what we’re doing.”
MORE THAN TEACHING INSTITUTIONS
For that to happen, colleges must overcome the longstanding and predominant view that they are exclusively teaching institutions, since many provincial college mandates explicitly prohibit, or are silent on allowing colleges to be involved in research. But Woodward notes that Nova Scotia recently amended its legislation to explicitly include colleges as appropriate vehicles for performing R&D, and there has been a dramatic turnaround in interest in colleges as R&D performers by federal and provincial governments.
That increased awareness and interest was reflected in the participation at the Ottawa research symposium in February. The ACCC-sponsored event attracted a significant number of attendees from government and industry, including representatives from Industry Canada, Human Resources Development Canada, National Research Council and the granting agencies. Presentations were made by the three granting councils, Industrial Research Assistance Program and Canada Foundation for Innovation. Delegates heard that while the granting agencies will continue to focus on basic research, new funding is being made available in areas where colleges can play a significant role. These areas include socio-economic policy development, clinical trials, partnered and interdisciplinary research, and specific areas such as aboriginal health, early childhood development, population health and disease prevention.
Ironically, a significant portion of the new research funding tends to fall into disciplines typically associated with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), while most applied research currently conducted by Canadian colleges tends to be in areas associated with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council NSERC). Woodward says SSHRC has been proactive in recognizing the trend and has acted accordingly.
“SSHRC is the most advanced in terms of policies and practices to incorporate colleges and institutes into their activities,” he notes, adding that his own college — Red Deer — is developing a centre of excellence for seniors continuing care. The centre will include teaching, learning and research space devoted to health and social issues.
Barry Garbutt, Red Deer College’s dean of applied sciences, attended the ACCC research symposium and drafted a report of the proceedings. In the report he noted that the trend towards evidence-based decision making, a greater emphasis on accountability (mission-related research) and the convergence of many areas of science all play in favour of an increased role for colleges in the research enterprise.
“Many believe that excellent scientists and excellent projects are falling through the cracks while the rich, powerful scientific teams are getting more than their share of support. For outcomes-based research, other measures of excellence (than the peer review system) need to be identified,” states Garbutt. “The Government of Canada is more interested in new ideas, outcomes, solutions, new products and services and quality. In other words a growing number of people are looking to research as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.”