27 October 2014

Demand driven innovation and the politics of research

Canada needs excellence in its capacity for basic research, applied research, and experimental development. These are the three elements through which we conduct and measure the R&D or S&T pipeline, from idea through to invoice, according to the Frascati Manual.

Successive expert panels and reports have shown Canada to have an excellent basic research capacity, but a lacklustre innovation and business R&D capacity. Here are a couple of op-eds that talk about these issues: one from the Globe and Mail featuring an international partnership on basic research, and the second from Polytechnics Canada CEO Nobina Robinson in the Hill Times talking about applied research. Both of these have in common a recognition that we have an excellent basic research system in place, and this is necessary for the full functioning of applied research and the innovation channel this implies.

But pushing harder on the research button is not going to change things. This requires specific policy and effort - to foster greater applicability of our basic research capacity by engaging partnerships, both within the academic world (among colleges, polytechnics and universities together), and with firms. As Robinson points out, "innovation is not purely a scientific activity - it is an economic one." And so while I applaud and support our national efforts to funnel more money into science and R&D, let's temper this with economic rationalism as we realize that we do not have the GDP to support unfettered inquiry into anything and everything. Regrettably, budgets require making hard choices. And that's no zombie idea.

24 October 2014

College Research Rankings: The Measures That Matter

GBC was pleased to ‎learn this week that we were ranked #3 in college research funding according to the Research Infosource top research colleges report released this week. Congratulations to BCIT and NAIT for achieving #1 and #2 respectively.

This is a great boon for BCIT as they are celebrating 50 years of education and 25 years of applied research this year.‎ I look forward to celebrating in November as BCIT hosts the annual Polytechnics Canada student applied research showcase. It is good to note that seven of the top 10 are Polytechnics Canada members, a testament to the strong applied research focus these organizations have taken as a measure of differentiation.

As good as the research funding rankings and the somewhat arbitrary research intensity figure are (research intensity=amount of money spent per faculty engaged) these are not the real measure of value of college and polytechnic applied research. The real story is alluded to in the data Research Infosource has compiled on numbers of partners and projects in this snapshot. Algonquin College tops the list on numbers of partnerships and projects, with BCIT, Sheridan and NAIT (along with George Brown College in second place in both) rounding out the top three in each category. 

This is a stronger measure because it speaks to reach and potential of what we do in terms of industry partner engagement and (missing from the list) student engagement. For example, on the Polytechnics Canada fact sheet you can see that the 11 members did the following research activity in 2013-14:
  • 1,789 Companies/clients serviced by applied research offices
  • 1,774 Applied research projects active and completed 
  • 946 Prototypes developed 
  • 11,927 Students engaged in applied research activity
Similarly, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, now called Colleges and Institutes Canada, has data for applied research activity in its members (which includes all of the Polytechnics Canada members, so these data are inclusive of those above) that show "In 2011-12, more than 24,000 college students and 1,700 faculty and staff collaborated with 4,586 companies across 524 research areas."

Also not captured here is the industry spend in each of these institutions Very often, given the way in which college and polytechnic applied research works, funding support pays for 50% of the costs associated with a project. This leveraged funding component provide a more nuanced view of the value based on the system capacity. A rough calculation to simply double the awarded funding would give a ballpark figure, though this is funding awarded, not funding dispersed; dispersed funding is a better measure of a particular organization's capacity because it shows the spend rate which is more easily matched to projects and partners to get a sense of scale. Including the numbers of students and the outcomes of the work (such as prototypes and products delivered to markets) enables us to start to infer impact. This impact is necessarily linked to research funding, but research funding is not a sole determinant of the outcomes capacity as it exists.
This starts to give us a more robust picture of the value - to firms, to students, colleges and polytechnics and the public - at the value for why we do this important work: to help firms to innovate while training the next generation of innovators. For the real value here is what exists in our partnerships with Canadian industry - and here I include cultural, community and corporate partnerships. Alex Usher has a good post about the relationship of firms to the research endeavour. Ignoring this connection, and the value of graduates equipped with innovation literacy in the economy broadly, are the outcomes that we should be tracking in order to better align the college and polytechnic applied research capacity with the social and economic needs of the economy.

Kudos for Research Infosource for advancing these issues. I look forward to more conversation about how best to measure - and what to measure - the value of the applied research system now in full swing across the country.

07 October 2014

Toronto Foundation launches Toronto Vital Signs 2014

Today marks the launch of the Toronto Vital Signs report, an in-depth look at the social and economic health of the region. As the message from Toronto Foundation CEO Rahul Bhardwaj and John Barford, Chair of the Board of Directors, makes clear, there is a lot to be proud of, yet a lot of work yet to do to ensure Toronto maintains a world class place to live and do business. The Toronto Star has a special section today which details the key messages, including how place determines success in the region.

George Brown College is proud to be the lead research partner for the Vital Signs report.

01 October 2014

Skills, innovation, the economy

With much discussion of late over skills and the role of education, it is interesting to see Alex Usher's post today featuring a Venn diagram of skills employers need versus those that alumni wish they had. It reinforces the work we do on innovation literacy and the promotion of those skills required for job market - and economic - success.

A recent Conference Board of Canada report called The Bucks Stop Here: Trends in Income Inequality Between Generations paints part of the picture here as well. There is some good news in this report, including increased labour market participation and a narrowing of the wage gap for women, and I note that the report states "The rise in average incomes does suggest that younger workers still have opportunities to advance." There is also a call to increase productivity in the labour force, which is consistent with many reports that look at how our labour force compares to other countries. With increasing retirements – and a corresponding shrinking of the labour force – increasing productivity is key to helping shape a vibrant economy.

Issues that are raised here such as underemployment and skills mismatches are real and important to address. One way that George Brown College is addressing these issues is to focus on a tight linkage to industry need in our programs. And, our emphasis on innovation literacy and what are called "soft skills" - those skills such as team work, communication, and entrepreneurship – gives our graduates a leg up in the job market. In addition, our focus on experiential learning – providing the capacity to apply skills through courses, applied research projects and internships, all help students to learn skills and apply them.

The Conference Board report notes that "The critical issue that emerges is how to ensure that younger workers are able to put their knowledge and skills to use in ways that will drive their incomes up faster than we have seen over the past three decades. " This is a very important point. Our focus on providing students with experiential learning and encouraging students to demonstrate what they have learned through for example our new digital badges program helps students seeking employment to demonstrate what they have learned in their programs and how they have applied this learning to real world contexts. Investing in education is a good thing, but this investment needs context: is there a labour market demand for a chosen profession? And importantly, what is industry's role in investing? We know that Canadian industry does not invest in additional education and training to the level our international counterparts do for their employees, and this is something that we foster with our close links to industry through our program advisory committees, for example.

Our focus on soft skills, on innovation literacy and entrepreneurship, and on how our programs link to employment give our students the tools with which to build experience and to gain employment. Students hone these skills further through experiential learning such as applied research and learn how to articulate the skills and knowledge they have gained so employers will understand what they know and know how to do. This puts the emphasis on the agency of each individual student, who is encouraged to come to the College, learn from our industry-relevant programs, and then demonstrate these skills and knowledge. We provide the context and the tools, and the encouragement to learn, and earn, a living.