09 March 2014

ACCC Research Symposium helps chart the evolution of college and polytechnic applied research

Lat week the ACCC convened the annual Applied Research Symposium, which provides an excellent view into the evolution of the country's applied research capacity being built in Canada's polytechnics and colleges.

The event was opened by the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, who lauded the work being done across the country to support industry innovation. Minister Rickford outlined the important role of colleges and polytechnics in advancing Canada's new Innovation, Science and Technology policy, due out later this year. The Minister also spoke about the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) and the new Canada Social Innovation Fund (CSIF) as representing key advances in the country's ability to leverage all aspects of the post secondary system to the advantage of Canadian firms, community organizations, and importantly, mobilizing our world leading basic research capacity to its fullest innovation potential.

The CSIF, announced as was the CFREF in Budget 2014, represents a key advance in college applied research. Both new funds will be administered by SSHRC and will advance the new IST Strategy by leveraging all innovation intermediaries from across the basic to applied research spectrum for greater social and economic prosperity. There is a lot of work to be done, and Minister Rickford advised the crowd that the college system must now step up and realize this potential commensurate with the new funding, in particular for the CSIF. The CSIF will roll out over the coming months, with the first tranche of funds to be  awarded in the coming fiscal year. While the program design needs to be completed, the College and Community Innovation Program offers a foundation. The team at NSERC, who administers the CCIP on behalf of the Tri-Council, has provided an excellent model for working with the polytechnic and college system to iteratively develop a program that is responsive to the college system while enabling the colleges to respond to their constituents. This means ensuring there is funding for faculty release time within the scope of block awards given to colleges, with mandatory student engagement, community response (a pull, not push, model of research), and with social not economic returns on investment and interest.

As a member of the SSHRC Programs and Quality Committee I am looking forward to advancing the CSIF in conjunction with our college and polytechnic colleagues across the country.  As Minister Rickford stated, it is up to the system to step up and realize the potential of this fund. First up is for colleges to obtain SSHRC eligibility. This should be done immediately for those not already eligible. For colleges that are NSERC eligible for the CCIP, this should be relatively straight forward. Nonetheless, I encourage all who are interested in the CSIF to start this process now in preparation for the launch of the program.

There were many good ideas and presentations at the Symposium, including a panel discussion on the value of the college and polytechnic system to enhance and foster private sector engagement in innovation. Bogdan Ciobanu of the NRC spoke about IRAP programs, and noted the imminent launch of the NRC's Business Innovation Assistance Program - this is the industry innovation voucher program launched in Budget 2013. The voucher program, and the CFREF among others, raises the issue of applied research capacity, and just what will constitute a preferred service provider for innovation intermediaries. Equally important is the need to ensure that government agencies such as IRAP are cognizant of the business development and applied research practices of colleges and polytechnics. This mutual understanding has been evolving over the past several years such that we are at a point now where there is the start (at least) of the diffusion of innovation support and the understanding of this in the wider business community.

There is still much work to be done in fostering a greater sense of how colleges, polytechnics and universities can work together to realize the innovation potential of our basic science capacity while enabling industry innovation. This latter is the biggest lag to the country's innovation and productivity potential, followed closely by our historical inability to commercialize homegrown IP.

In keeping with this point the best part of the conference was a pre-conference workshop and discussion convened by the country's Technology Access Centres (TACs), as funded by the CCIP. George Brown College has one of the first TACs in the Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt). This group has advanced the thinking on college and polytechnic applied research significantly in reviewing concepts related to college research brand identity, standards, and franchising along the lines of the capacity and contribution model of applied research that Bert van den Berg and I introduced to the ACCC Research Symposium last year.

There is an important precedent for this thinking in the three decade history of the Quebec CCTTs. The CCTTs have built a brand identity in industry as a place where firms can access applied research, technology development, technical assistance and information & training. Within the CCTTs is an inherent common capacity to undertake this work in ways that are known and expected by industry. This model has grown over the last 30 years such that it has created an awareness and expectation of contribution along common standards. Learning from and building on this model, the TACs are well positioned to create a similar brand across the country, advancing the innovation potential latent in our firms and basic science labs alike. This is the most significant aspect of the evolution of applied research as represented in the country's colleges and polytechnics. The ACCC has supported this growth and evolution, alongside Polytechnics Canada and the Réseau Trans-tech.

Launched at this year's Symposium was the ACCC's updated environmental scan, which offers a good view into the world of college applied research. This is a good accompaniment to the research fact sheet of Polytechnics Canada and Réseau Trans-tech's evaluation report. And while there is still much work to be done in terms of orienting the college and polytechnic applied research system to outcomes and impacts, we are starting to get a clear picture of the activities and objectives of college and polytechnic applied research as it relates to student engagement and skills acquisition and firm level innovation. There is much to celebrate here, and the Symposium offered a good avenue to pause and reflect on what works well and how we can work together to continuously improve our approach.

The community is evolving and continuing to learn from each other while benchmarking itself against the criterion of excellence in support of greater innovation and productivity. When we are able to critically examine our practices and measure these against international counterparts such as the likes of the Fraunhofer and Tekes institutes, then we are showing ourselves to be world class in our approach to applied research. The ACCC Applied Research Symposium has shown the community has a willingness to engage in this way - particularly in the TACs - which marks an important step in the ongoing evolution of the college and polytechnic applied research capacity.

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