Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Colleges can drive innovation through applied research

As a member of the ACCC's Science, Technology and Innovation Committee, I'm keenly interested in increasing Colleges' participation in applied research, and in keeping that issue on the federal government's agenda.

Equally, I want to keep applied research near the top of the strategic agenda at Douglas College, because it can contribute so much to faculty engagement, community engagement and — when research involves students — to experiential learning. Applied research makes a difference in the world, and that's what colleges are all about.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) recently issued a call for proposals for its new College-Industry Innovation Fund. The fund is an encouraging signal that the federal government views colleges as part of the solution to Canada's sluggish performance on productivity and innovation, which lags the U.S. as well as other OECD countries. Thanks to our expertise in applied research as well as our strong community connections, colleges have a lot to offer when it comes to driving innovation and productivity in small to medium-sized enterprises.

The CFI fund fits a familiar paradigm, where applied research in science and technology is geared towards commercialization.

But I believe we need to broaden our concept of the knowledge economy, because innovation in the private sector is not enough to drive productivity gains and economic growth in Canada.

The reality is that the not-for-profit and government sectors represent a huge component of Canada's economy. And so we desperately need to improve productivity and efficiency in those sectors as well. Colleges (and universities) are well positioned to help drive innovation in those sectors too.

At Douglas, Dean of Science and Technology Thor Borgford is chairing a group looking at our applied research structures, infrastructure, and mechanisms.

Funding is a major issue: clearly, base dollars must be used for our core educational mandate, which is teaching. That being said, funding for applied research can come from a number of different sources. At Douglas, we already have SSHRC, NSERC and CFI eligibility. And funding can come from other federal sources, such as Western Economic Diversification, and Community Futures.

But we can't rely only on large national grants. Funding can also come from regional economic development offices, municipalities, NGOs and from the private sector.

I know from personal experience that regional and local partnerships can work. At Grande Prairie Regional College, I started an entity called the Centre for Research and Innovation (CRI), a partnership between the college and Grande Prairie's Economic Development Office.

In one CRI project, we studied high turnover rates among front-line staff working at NGOs that provided assistance to persons with developmental disabilities. Our recommendations were implemented and contributed to a modest but meaningful improvement in the turnover rate. This project involved student researchers and was funded by the NGOs.

In another project, we worked with the health region to train nurses and related paraprofessionals on evidence-based practice and on literacy in interpreting scientific literature. The goal was to encourage nurses to apply research findings in their practices. This project was partly funded by the federal government.

Another fascinating project was funded by the forest industry and led by Dr. Weixing Tan, who still teaches at Grande Prairie. He found that "hardened" tree seedlings — those exposed to extremes of temperature — survived better than non-hardened seedlings. The problem was that hardened seedlings grew more slowly and produced less fibre than non-hardened seedlings. It seems that the hardening process "trains" the tree to slow its growth rate when faced with drought and cold. But the non-hardened tree keeps trying. Therefore, using hardened seedlings for replanting was not recommended. This project, which involved student researchers, had a transformational impact on tree planting.

So these are examples of what is possible with applied research, if you have the community connections. And that's why I'm such a strong advocate of applied research at colleges. —Scott

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