18 April 2013

Franchising college applied research, and other notes from the ACCC Applied Research Symposium 2013

The ACCC Applied Research Symposium 2013 convened these past two days and featured some great presentations and discussion about the evolution of college applied research. The Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, opened the conference by observing that this is an important time for colleges. Our applied research, conducted in concert with industry, is part of a rebalancing of the entire spectrum of research, from basic to applied, that Canada must undertake to be competitive in the global economy. The federal government has allocated funds to support business innovation - including the announcement of CFI funding, of which GBC Research is a recipient. Minister Goodyear noted that we are first in the G7 and fourth in the OECD for HERD, but 16th for BERD; Canada's colleges are key to increasing business R&D; "Canada can do better," he said. Coordination with the provinces is key, the minister added, as his department works to implement recommendations from the Jenkins Panel, including the NRC-IRAP Concierge service.

The concierge service will be an important new element in the Canadian innovation system. It will feature warm handoffs between IRAP field agents and approved service providers. Along with the new "credit note" innovation voucher system announced in Budget 2013, it will provide key, industry facing tools for increasing innovation in the country.

Seneca College president David Agnew addressed the audience and reminded us to look beyond the immediate and to forge a future in collaboration with other actors in the post secondary systems in which we work. This was a good start to two days of discussions around how best to continue the evolution of a leading applied research ecosystem present throughout the country. There was good movement at the symposium on creating a more cohesive national network of college applied research, which will fit well within the new emergent structures designed to get industry increasing their R&D. For the other facet of a warm handoff is a soft landing into new markets across the country. Many presenters focused on outcomes and measurement, as these are key challenges for the system as we continue to build a network of professional client service organisations specializing in linking industry to innovation supports while giving students crucial innovation literacy skills.

Bert van den Berg of NSERC and I closed the conference with a presentation on "Developments for Performance measurement in applied research and technology development," picking up on themes raised regarding outcomes and measurement. I've copied some notes from our presentation deck below (full deck to be available on the ACCC site soon). Our discussion focused on promoting a college applied research franchise that encourages and measures capacity: the capability of the institution and its units to work with clients on applied research and technology development; and contribution: the performance of applied research and technology development with clients and the downstream effect on social and economic productivity.  Key context here is the CCA Expert Panel Report on the State of S&T, 2012, of which I was a member, which found that while there is much activity going on in colleges conducting applied research, there is a need for a more coordinated approach to outcomes measurement of this activity:
Most of these other sources of data on applied R&D activity in Canada’s higher education sector and public research organizations are not broken down by the field or type of research. As well, in many cases, data are available only for specific institutions, sectors, or regions, and are not available consistently across the country. As a result, while general statistics of this kind may illuminate certain facts about Canada’s applied R&D strengths in specific institutional settings, their piecemeal nature precludes a systematic identification of Canada’s research and technology strengths. The Panel thus concludes that there remains a need for more systematic and detailed data collection of metrics related to applied research and technology development activity in Canada. (p 114-5)
Achieving and so measuring capacity and consistency via the definition of a college applied research "franchise" or "certification" would give (prospective) clients confidence with regard to perceived issues about working with colleges, such as:
  • access to foreground IP 
  • protection of company background IP 
  • who works with institution staff to ensure projects are executed 
  • the processes, protocols and parameters for AR&TD performance 
  • training of students with regards to IP, good lab practice ...
Franchising parts of college applied research and technology development will help us to define dimensions along which to measure capability at the institutional and intra-institutional level, define how this can be measured in a credible fashion (i.e., avoid self measurement), and may involve looking to ISO standards (or some such system) for measures that align with process capability for R&D.

The development of a common look and feel, commensurate with developing the brand of college industry applied research, is required in order to balance the needs of individual colleges to have a singular identity with showcasing the brand of college applied research. In this sense, look can be thought of as local, and feel as federal. A college's unique visual identity is matched to the ways in which an applied research franchise feels, or operates, in terms of policies, procedures, etc.

This is the signal opportunity that the Symposium has articulated, with the many good discussions on outcomes, metrics, and networks. The conference benefited greatly from the participation of the Quebec CCTT's, who operate now as a kind of franchise, and who collect good metrics (and have for the last decade or so) on outcomes and effectiveness.

The symposium closed with a keynote address by the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson, who extolled the virtues of the college system as key vocational education and training institutions that contribute greatly to Canada;s productivity. He warned the audience against trying to be something we are not, namely universities who conduct basic research. Referring to Germany as an example of a country with a long and proud history of celebrating vocational and skills education that coincides with basic research and university excellence (German, incidentally, has the lowest university attainment rate of the EU, yet the most productive economy and with lots of basic research excellence). This was a good reminder for the colleges, institutes and polytechnics to focus in our strengths and to work with universities in a collaborative and cohesive fashion.

The 2013 Applied Research Symposium marks another key milestone in the evolution of college applied research in Canada. I am heartened by the collaborative spirit fostered by the ACCC at the symposium as we work to co-create a national applied research and innovation system that promotes industry innovation linked tightly to producing graduates who will increase Canada's productivity and innovation.

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