Innovation Conversations: Q&A with Nobina Robinson

Veronica Silva
July 16, 2018

Nobina Robinson retires from her position of Chief Executive Officer at Polytechnics Canada this month after nine years in that role. In those years, Robinson has been recognized by her colleagues for bringing attention to the important role polytechnics and colleges play in Canada’s innovation ecosystem, particularly applied research and commercialization. She shares her thoughts with RE$EARCH MONEY about the legacy she leaves behind and what’s next for the sector.

RE$EARCH MONEY: In the nine years since taking the helm of Polytechnics Canada, what has changed in the R&D and innovation ecosystem that has created the most impact among polytechnics and colleges?

Nobina Robinson (NR): In my view, the biggest change at the federal level is the improved understanding by decision-makers of the contributions polytechnics make to Canada’s innovation needs, specifically, the applied research and commercialization solutions that we offer to our industry and employer partners.  Evidence for this is the growth in programs, such as the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP), and the creation of the College-Industry Innovation Fund (CIIF) – two permanent federal programs that strengthen polytechnic collaborative R&D with industry and employers. The changes that we advocated for at Polytechnics Canada were inclusion and differentiation – inclusion in federal policy, programs and research agendas, and differentiation from discovery research and big science. Two recent examples are: a) naming polytechnics as important eligible ecosystem partners for the Innovation Supercluster Initiative by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), and b) opening Mitacs Accelerate research internships, though even only on a pilot basis, for polytechnic and college undergraduates.

And yet none of the efforts and recognition above is altering the very small percentage of federal higher education R&D spending available to all Canadian colleges and polytechnics – even after we take into account some important gains in Budget 2018. Only 2% (roughly) of the annual $3+ billion federal contribution to Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) is allocated to the entire group of R&D-ready polytechnics and colleges. One has to ask oneself why this is. Is it bias? Is it the imbalance between funding for basic and applied research? Is it fear that by including and harnessing polytechnic innovation capabilities, the share of funds available to university researchers might diminish?  Whatever the reason, the resistance has been strong and at times, inexplicable.

R$: How do you view the role of polytechnics in Canada’s evolving innovation ecosystem?

NR: Polytechnics are enablers of firm-level or community innovation and contribute to economic growth. These technology-driven learning institutions help to bridge the well-known commercialization gap by providing the resources businesses require to innovate. Faculty and staff have subject matter expertise and a wide spectrum of physical assets (equipment, machines, and labs) to assist firms with the capital intensive components of the product development process. As well, polytechnic applied education builds vitally important innovation skills in its students, the very skills that build resilient, smart and adaptable workers for the 21st century economy. The polytechnic model of applied education views applied research as a core principle, and an opportunity for students to apply and gain key problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills – all of which are key to innovation.

Polytechnics do not do this in isolation, but rather function best when the ecosystem itself is encouraged to be collaborative; polytechnics partner well with both universities and employers when it comes to research and innovation. Federal programs that recognize this value-add and leverage polytechnics as solution providers are therefore really important and more are needed. This is not just a case of modernizing inclusion of polytechnics in granting council programs; it is also important that key federal R&D oriented programs are more inclusive of, open to, and leverage polytechnic applied research and innovation capabilities. This is why we are keen that the National Research Council (NRC), the regional development agencies and federal departments such as Environment Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Natural Resources, and Health Canada, all accurately harness polytechnic capabilities in R&D and commercialization.

R$: The federal government has recognized the role of polytechnics, colleges and institutes in Budget 2018 with increased funding. What were some of the challenges that polytechnics faced in getting the government to recognize your role in R&D and innovation? What further action would you like to see?   

NR: Well, after three years of no increase to the only federal granting council program that supports the innovation activity of over 110 polytechnics, colleges and CEGEPs, our members welcomed with enormous relief the new additional funds to CCIP (administered by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)) through its Research Partnership portfolio. This coming year, the program will grow from $53 million a year to about $75 million a year. This increase is built in for the next five years, but experience has shown that demand outstrips supply, and the program will once again fall into the situation that it cannot support all the legitimately approved grant requests it receives. NSERC for years has had to “cash manage” CCIP, and without further increases by 2020, we will be back to the same situation we found ourselves in for the last three years – strong, peer-reviewed proposals being met with a nil answer, forcing our members to disappoint their industry partners.

One of the hardest challenges we faced over the past year was the ferocious and well-orchestrated campaign for increase to basic science funding which threatened to overshadow the differentiated case we were making for applied science/applied research funding. This is partially because the granting councils have accrued the double mandate of science and innovation, and most unfortunately, these are pitted against each other. Fundamental research is absolutely necessary for Canada. But it is insufficient as the only means to spur innovation and commercialization.

That we were successful in being heard through all the clamour for unfettered science funding is a testament to our tenacious advocacy, but the same movie is likely to replay as the science lobby gears up for the 2019 federal election. Our primary challenges remain – to address the skepticism about polytechnic innovation impact, and to break the elitist and wrong-headed bias that upstream investment in discovery research alone will lead to commercialization results for Canadian firms. We have detected a refusal on the part of some decision-makers to accept that innovation of the kind Canadian firms need to grow is actually incremental, and often a “grubby” process, not necessarily the kind that attracts shiny ribbon-cutting activities, but one that gets product to market.

Perhaps the hardest thing for us is the longstanding exclusion of CCIP from the federal Research Support Fund. To date, I have found no policy rationale that can justify the exclusion of this competitive and peer-reviewed collaborative R&D program from the indirect costs of research program – an exclusion that disadvantages polytechnics considerably. The assumption is that polytechnics and colleges can simply absorb their indirect cost of research; but we don’t assume that of universities, do we? So, to answer your question, we need more federal decision-makers to commit to a truly inclusive science, research and innovation suite of programs, and we need demonstrable action from the federal government to support the polytechnic and college sector’s very real indirect costs of research.

R$: Given what has been accomplished during your tenure, what should be the top priority of Polytechnics Canada moving forward?

NR: We have barely begun to break ground on ensuring polytechnics are leveraged to their full extent by federal departments and agencies. People may now know the word “polytechnic,” and some may see the value in the applied research our members enable, but this has yet to permeate through ALL applicable federal programs and all federally-identified growth challenges. As an association, our top priority is to make the case that polytechnics are leaders in training Canadians for the future of work, and helping Canadian businesses to grow. This is because of the technology-rich training environment that we offer and because of the speed to delivery – both in terms of graduating workers into the workforce, and in terms of the time-sensitive R&D and commercialization we deliver. We need to continue to work hard to achieve parity of esteem in a way that flips the ivory tower and false hierarchy of learning on its head – we need to value all learners equally, and truly seek balanced funding between basic science and applied research. This is what the innovation-intensive countries we wish to emulate and we so admire, Germany, Switzerland, South Korea to name a few, already do.

R$: Among the different federal programs that are being highlighted by the current federal government (e.g. superclusters, Innovative Solutions Canada, etc.), which ones benefit polytechnics and colleges the most? How can polytechnic and colleges better take advantage of these programs?

NR: Polytechnics can take advantage of these kinds of programs if the companies that these R&D programs are designed to support are more aware of the opportunities to partner with polytechnics. This can only happen if the federal government modernizes and updates program eligibility criteria, ensuring that the deep and proven capability in commercialization of research that polytechnics have built up is known to (and utilized by) firms ready to innovate. A more robust Innovation Canada platform, complete with an asset map, that enables firms wishing to innovate to know where and how to access polytechnics, along with other innovation ecosystem actors, would be an important step forward.

R$: It’s been eight years since the submission of the Jenkins panel recommendations. Are you satisfied with the actions taken on the recommendations to date? What else needs to be done?

NR: The expert panel that reviewed federal R&D support programs worked from 2010 to 2011 and represents, for me, some of the most intense learning I have done in my career. The gargantuan task of reviewing these disparate federal business R&D programs could not be achieved in one year, nor could the implementation of several of our recommendations. But it has been heartening to see federal action on innovation since 2011, and I am particularly proud that some of the recommendations I personally championed, like the new Innovative Solutions Canada, (the Canadianized Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR)) or the logic of a concierge and portal service to navigate companies to the right programs, have come to fruition. It was also good to see the reasoning behind creating Innovation Canada and consolidating flagship R&D programs within it – an effort that was in the spirit of the Jenkins Report.

Much more can be done to make federal innovation initiatives (not science initiatives) demand-driven and outcomes-oriented, and to clearly articulate that while science is not the same as innovation, Canada needs both world-class science, but also world-beating innovation.


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