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Taking care of business at U of Alberta

The University of Alberta boasts the largest number of NSERC Industrial Research Chairs in the country, and it’s on the hunt for even more.

By CAITLIN CRAWSHAW | MAR 13 2013

Last October, the University of Alberta held a dinner at the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa billed as a celebration of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Industrial Research Chairs program. The crowd of 60 or so included U of A chair holders, industry representatives, senior government officials and a handful of Alberta MPs and cabinet ministers. It was, says U of A President Indira Samarasekera, a very public way for her university to say thanks to the federal government and NSERC for their continuing support of the program.

The innovation challenges of today, she said at the event, can’t be solved by the academy or corporations acting alone, but rather through partnerships that leverage the strengths of both. And, said Dr. Samarasekera, who once held her own NSERC Industrial Research Chair, “it is always gratifying to see the results of one’s research applied.”

When it comes to research, U of A, it can be fairly said, has opened its arms to industry. It holds 22 NSERC Industrial Research Chairs, 18 within the faculty of engineering. That’s the largest number of IRCs in the country, double the number held by any other university. Funded on a “cash-match” basis by NSERC with industry, the average chair holder receives between $300,000 and $400,000 in funding per year for five-year terms that are renewable, providing ample research dollars for professors and their students.

Established in 1983, the program currently supports 175 chairs at universities across the country. The idea is for chair holders to build long-term, sustainable partnerships with industry, while also helping universities to build critical mass in research areas of their choosing, says Janet Walden, vice-president of NSERC’s Research Partnerships Program. For U of A, this has meant building a strong base of research in energy and natural resources engineering.

“What you see at the U of A is an interesting example,” says Ms. Walden. “Working with the oilsands industry around them, they’e been able to build those partnerships and expand that kernel of expertise into a large mass of expertise in oilsands and related technologies.”

U of A didn’t get its first IRCs until the early 1990s, a couple of years before long-serving dean David Lynch took the helm at the faculty of engineering. The faculty had added chairs sporadically to its roster, but Dr. Lynch and his colleagues decided to take a more strategic approach. Given the economic importance of energy and natural resources to Canada’s economy, he figured the growth potential of the sector would create plenty of opportunities for research. Collaborating with industry via the IRC program seemed a natural strategy to develop this academic expertise.

So, rather than just waiting for individual researchers to identify a project with an obvious industry tie-in, the faculty’s administrators actively encouraged researchers to connect with industry, develop research ideas together and apply for the chairs program. Since then, U of A has rapidly grown its roster of IRCs in engineering.

“Success breeds success,” says Lorne Babiuk, U of A’s vice-president, research. He expects that over the years, engineering professors have likely felt encouraged to apply for IRC opportunities after seeing their colleagues have success with them. It has also helped that the university has a culture that encourages academics to work with industry, he adds, and has a research infrastructure that can benefit industry.

“We have some extremely expensive equipment here,” says Dr. Babiuk. “If industry needs access to, let’s say a $10-million electron microscope, they’re not going to invest in that microscope for a short time period.” It’s much easier to partner with an institution and use their equipment to solve a problem.

At the moment, the faculty of engineering is developing another 10 IRC applications, hoping to bring U of A’s total to 30 within the next couple of years. This is doable, given U of A’s track record – 100 percent of its applications have been accepted by NSERC. That said, regardless of which institution is applying, acceptance rates are quite high, generally around 80 percent. NSERC offers assistance at the start of the process to ensure researchers and their universities put forward the best case possible to avoid wasting time and resources. “It’s a very dynamic process and there’s a lot of back and forth,” says NSERC’s Ms. Walden.

The process begins with a researcher approaching a prospective industry partner – often a company that the researcher has worked with in the past, says Dr. Lynch – to see if there’s a long-term project that might benefit both parties. In addition to having a keen faculty member, companies need a committed employee to work as a liaison.

Finding the right people to shape a project can take months, “but you don’t want to rush it,” says Dr. Lynch. When an application is finished, it’s sent to NSERC and then vetted by an international panel consisting of at least five experts in the field with no connection to the prospective chair holder. On top of reviewing the application, these experts do a site visit, meet with the parties involved and then write a site report. “This process, from the day we submit [the application], could take six to nine months to receive approvals,” says Dr. Lynch.

While the process might seem time-consuming, chair holders say it’s well worth it. For engineering professor Murray Gray, whose IRC in oilsands upgrading concluded in October 2012 after two terms, the chair allowed him to focus on doing his research on bitumen extraction and publishing it – not applying for funding. His experience with industry, he says, has also significantly enriched his undergraduate teaching.

Simaan AbouRizk, who has held the same IRC in construction engineering and management since 1997 (he’s in his fourth term), says the chair has been most beneficial to his graduate students, a point emphasized by many of the chair holders who spoke at the Ottawa dinner in October. “I think our main mission is to produce high-quality personnel,” he says. To that end, his IRC has provided his students with the opportunity to understand the needs of industry, to do applied research and to connect with potential employers – many of his students have been hired by industrial partners upon graduation.

The companies, as well, benefit from the support. The City of Edmonton’s drainage services unit, for example, one of 16 partners involved with Dr. AbouRizk’s IRC, had access to the researcher’s construction simulation software and process improvement tools when it embarked on a $22-million tunnel project several years ago. That assistance allowed the 3.5-kilometre project to get completed $1.3 million under budget. “They did all of the work. We supplied funding, the problem and our staff time,” says Siri Fernando, director of design and construction for Edmonton’s drainage services.

Similarly, Edmonton-based energy provider Capital Power Corporation helps fund Aminah Robinson Fayek’s IRC in strategic construction modeling and delivery. “The research she’s doing goes to the heart of one of the issues we face: productivity and cost-control for large-scale investments,” says Martin Kennedy, the company’s vice-president, government relations.

“We also liked this initiative because the results are publicly available to everyone,” says Mr. Kennedy. Rather than keeping the knowledge to itself, the company is happy to share the wealth. This is true for all IRCs: while companies support the work financially, contribute research questions and meet with researchers regularly, they do not own the intellectual property resulting from the work.

Nevertheless, there are academics who criticize industry involvement in academia as hindering academic freedom. Such arguments are “pure rubbish,” says Dr. Samarasekera. “A lot of people misunderstand these industry research chairs, as if they’re the handmaiden of industry – that’s not the case at all.” Academics provide the “intellectual direction” to the projects and remain firmly in the driver’s seat, even if research questions are developed collaboratively.

She argues that the IRC program, in fact, bolsters academic freedom by keeping some academics actively engaged in research during times of funding scarcity. In the mid-’80s, she held an IRC that allowed her to continue her work at a time when academic jobs and research dollars were tough to come by. “The only reason I had a job was because I was a junior chair holder,” says Dr. Samarasekera. Things aren’t so different for academics nowadays, she suggests: “We’re in that period again where there’s no new funding.”

U of A’s Dr. Babiuk, another former IRC holder (in biotechnology while at the University of Saskatchewan), echoes this view. “We guard academic freedom very strictly. It’s a culture. The companies know that’s how we operate,” he says. As well, most of U of A’s IRCs are funded by multiple industry partners. “That also gives them even more opportunity for freedom of research because it’s not driven by a single company.”

Dr. AbouRizk paints a somewhat more nuanced picture. He and his research team meet with industry partners quarterly for three-day meetings. He answers to a technical board, as well. “In general, we count on them to be involved with us in shaping the research direction,” he says. “Essentially, they help us with the initial strategic direction of the work and then they help us make sure that whatever we’ve committed to doing is actually happening.”

This isn’t a negative thing, he says, since engineering is about applying knowledge to real-world problems. And, as an academic, he wants to see his work disseminated – not sitting in a journal somewhere, unread by people who could use the information.

Dr. Gray, whose IRC was oriented around bitumen processing, also met frequently with his funders. “There was lots of dialogue, lots of interaction during the term of the project,” he says. Rather than sticking with a plan laid out at the start of the project, the work shifted according to the priorities of the funders. “It wasn’t like I said to the companies, ‘Take it or leave it,’” says Dr. Gray. Nevertheless, he never felt that the IRC program limited the scope of his research, partly because he could do other work on the side. “In my case, I continued to do some work that was independent of the chair,” he says.

Dr. Gray has come across many professors who shun corporate involvement in universities and view industry support as “somehow tainted.” As much as he disagrees with this idea, he also readily admits that life as a researcher is much easier with a pro-industry attitude.  After collaborating with industry over the years, he’s no longer on what he calls the grant-writing hamster wheel. “The irony for me is that if I’m willing to work with companies, they come to me and ask if they can work with me,” he says.

But the situation for many other researchers at the university is that they must continuously seek funding for their projects, taking away time that they’d rather spend researching and publishing. “That’s one of the problems in Canada right now,” asserts Dr. Gray. “If you don’t work with industry, or do work that’s relevant to the major issues of society, it’s hard to get funding.”

Caitlin Crawshaw is a freelance writer in Edmonton.

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  1. Dennis Gorte / March 14, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Eleven of those IRC chairs ended up being Oil Sands related. The province of Aberta recently announced a 7% cut in UofA’s operating grant, citing a “bitumen bubble” phenomena. If anything, this outcome should by far demonstrate the abject failure of industrial chairs, and how such model ends up slowing down innovation and economical diversity.

  2. Professor / March 31, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    The Industrial Research Chair model gives lots of money for a professor who has some contacts with the industry (i.e. he worked there before becoming a faculty, or having a “back-door” business with this company, etc. For example, a big-name professor in Queens established a spin-off, and then he sold it while holding 51% of the shares and uses support letters from his company to get NSERC money!!! ). Another one in Waterloo is doing consulting business with a general manager in Hydro One while getting all his grant-support letters signed by his partner! The end results is that one professor might have $500k/year for 10 or more years to do a “cheap” work for the supporting company using highly-qualified personnel. In engineering, you can hire an international engineer with masters degree for 18k/year to do his PhD in one of the company’s project. The company is paying half of this or even less as one dollar from industry brings 3 dollars from the federal and provincial money! Plus, the company gets tax reductions for those research donations! In fact, the work done is far away from being research. It is mainly an engineering task similar to what can be done in an engineering firm. Research aims to develop new technologies and new products, which is not the case for several companies, such as electric power utilities, construction firms, etc. On the other hand, this IRC will do anything to keep his contacts safe from other colleagues working in the same area to enjoy the big fat money and keeping the crumbs of NSERC to other poor professors, who might be more productive and far more innovative but don’t have the card of the big boss!

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