RE$EARCH MONEY Exclusive: Campaign building for $1 billion request to boost skills pipeline for information and communications technologies

Guest Contributor
September 15, 2000

Intense discussions are underway to harmonize a major lobbying campaign to secure nearly $1 billion in federal funding over five years aimed at dramatically boosting the skills pipeline for rapidly expanding industries within the high technology sector. The money would be used to hire new researchers and professors for key university disciplines, and is intended to increase the volume of graduates from Canadian universities and colleges. Backers of the two parallel initiatives say that the funds are essential to ensure that Canada remains a competitive player in the emerging knowledge-based economy.

Yet the common front required for the two camps to merge their proposals remains elusive as a diverse set of players undertake the complex task of developing a unified front that all parties can rally behind. Time constraints and the apparent inability of the two initiatives to agree on which disciplines should be included in the formal request to government seem to be the biggest obstacles. The two sides roughly break down along the disciplines and technologies underpinning the hardware and software components of the information technology and communications (ICT) sectors.

There are clear indications that the government is receptive to such an initiative. Industry Canada is currently developing a "beyond connectedness" agenda that highlights the role of ICT, and Finance minister Paul Martin is planning to deliver a major address on the New Economy this month. And the veteran technology leaders orchestrating the campaigns are acutely aware that the government has a strong preference for a proposal that bridges the two campaigns. All agree that federal support for of human capital is urgently required to fuel Canada's participation and growth in the emerging knowledge-based economy.

On the hardware side is eMPOWR Canada (microelectronics, optoelectronics, wireless technologies and related embedded devices) which is seeking $550-600 million over five years to build domestic capacity in Canadian universities and colleges to ensure an adequate supply of highly qualified graduates. With the backing of industry, it is spending more than $500,000 on its campaign to convince government of the merits of its proposal, complete with surveys of industry and universities and a business plan that should be ready later this month.

In the other camp is the Canadian Institute of Telecommunications Research (CITR) and its bid to secure $350 million over five years for disciplines underpinning ICT. The cost of the CITR campaign is far more modest, although it has contributed a report which included a spillover analysis of R&D activity in relevant disciplines and a survey of electrical engineering and computer engineering departments in universities which is nearly complete.

The combined financial request from the two groups puts the initiative on par with other recent federal programs targeting university research. When added to the campaign by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to double its funding over the next four years, the combined ask for new university research and training support tops $1.5 billion.


Backers of both initiatives approached the government last fall for inclusion in the February/00 Budget, but definitional obstacles and a late entry into the Budget process resulted in failure, prompting of new campaigns with a broader focus and greater responsiveness to government requirements. The campaigns must also mesh with existing federal programs supporting university-based research such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the new Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP), as well as provincial programs in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere.

But with the Budget timetable clock ticking, pressure is mounting to ensure that a unified proposal is ready for Cabinet consideration. Even if the proposals are unified, the initiative must overcome a feeling within government that the Liberal administration has already done all that it's going to do for university research in the last three Budgets.

"We have to have a unified approach going to government, but we're not there yet," says Dr Doug Barber, former CEO of Gennum Corp and co-chair of the task force behind industry-funded eMPOWR Canada, the organization representing the hardware disciplines. "If we're all moving toward government with competing proposals then nothing will fly."


The other proposal comes from CITR, a federal Network of Centres of Excellence (NCE) fostering university-industry collaboration in disciplines relating to ICT. Led by Dr Peter Nicholson, CITR board chair and BCE Inc's chief strategy officer, and CITR president Dr Birendra Prasada, the ICT proposal includes a major software component that is outside the realm of the industries supporting the eMPOWR bid.

There have been frequent discussions between the two groups for months, and Nicholson straddles the two campaigns as co-chair of the task force behind eMPOWR. But the conflicting constituencies supporting the two initiatives continue to bedevil attempts to find common ground that will make true harmonization a reality.

"We need to make a common cause with the microelectronics people and their alliance, but they're reluctant to support the broader range of the way we tell the story. The hard technology is a critical driver, but it's only one input to ICT," says Nicholson, who leads the CITR lobbying effort. "The issue is the breadth of the sectors we believe need this support. Our scope is wider but they feel their focus will give them a bigger bang for the buck."

eMPOWR's lobbying effort is kicking into high gear, led by Dr Jocelyn Ghent Mallet, a former Industry Canada DG and past senior advisor to Newbridge Networks Corp chairman Terry Matthews. As campaign leader, Mallett is working the halls of the Industry department seeking advice and support for how the ultimate funding pitch should be framed and presented.

"We were given instructions from the federal government to see what we could do to broaden and deepen our proposal," she says. "I think (the government) would much prefer to have one proposal that's harmonized and (aligned) with NSERC. It's very critical that we work together on this. We already made a very significant shift to include embedded software which was not necessarily entirely appreciated by all of our clientele."

To manage the new funds and ensure their most effective delivery, eMPOWR Canada is proposing a new stand alone, not-for-profit organization with an industry-driven board of directors. Originally entitled Knowledge Canada, eMPOWR Canada is conceived as a receptor organization to receive and administer federal funding, and may be formed by converting the defunct Canadian Semiconductor Design Association into the new organization.


In addition to increasing the supply of talent from Canadian universities and colleges, eMPOWR Canada will also have a mandate to attract highly qualified personnel to Canada from other countries. To that end, it is striking an alliance with Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) as well as organizations involved in recruiting skilled personnel from foreign countries. A portion of its requested funding would go towards subsidizing recruitment efforts and establishing an interface with federal immigration authorities.

For CITR's Prasada, there has been far too much talk about the differences that remain between the two campaigns, and not enough about the common needs driving both initiatives. He says there has been considerable progress since last year when the two campaigns were running on separate but parallel courses, and he stresses the need achieve harmonization quickly.

"It's like the time before a concert starts and all the musicians are tuning their own instruments. They may not sound like they're in tune, but they're all working towards the same thing," he says. "We're all looking for solutions and I'm sure we'll find them.... Everything is still in flux, but what is there is the will and we all want to see a unified proposal."

Prasada says he sees the CITR and eMPOWR initiatives as complimentary since neither is taught nor practised in isolation - hardware is conceived in the context of software systems and software systems must be developed in conjunction with the hardware component. Indeed, Prasada has no objections to the CITR-backed bid being folded under the eMPOWR banner, although he acknowledges that the acronym does not include several significant disciplines within ICT and says eMPOWR is actually a subset of ICT.

"It doesn't really matter what the name is. We have to train students in the context of both hardware and software and the challenge is, how do you do it," he says. "It's an issue of how you educate people."

The eMPOWR proposal includes $45 million for the National Research Council (NRC) to build a prototyping facility for optoelectronics in Ottawa, which could play a key role in the training and development of skilled personnel for the sector.

Mallett says the goal of harmonizing the CITR and eMPOWR proposals, incorporating the NRC and striking an alliance with Human Resources Development Canada reflects the holistic approach the campaign is seeking to develop.

"This is about people. The research piece is only the means to the end. It is the instrument by which you get the people," she says. "You will not attract these new faculty unless you make it wonderful for them to be here - give them the research money they need, the graduate students and the office space they need. Give them what they need."


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