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Universities “encouraged” by expert panel report on R&D

Proposals for overhauling the NRC, student internships and continued funding for research granting councils are well received.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | OCT 26 2011

Universities welcomed a report by a federally appointed panel on research and development that called for the creation of a new industry-focused granting council, an overhaul of the National Research Council and an expanded federal internship program for university students.

“It’s encouraging, there’s no doubt about it, from a university point of view,” said Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, research and international affairs, at McMaster University. The expert panel was appointed last year to examine the more than $6 billion the federal government spends on various tax incentives and other programs to support business R&D. Led by Tom Jenkins, the chairman of OpenText Corp., the panel reviewed 60 programs spread across 17 government departments and agencies.

While most of the panel’s report dealt with ways of simplifying and streamlining the complex array of programs that are aimed at boosting business R&D, a number of its recommendations will, if accepted, have a direct impact on universities. Chief among them was a proposed overhaul of the National Research Council, a federal research agency that was created during the First World War at a time when the nation’s universities were doing little basic research. Since then the council’s role has become too broad and unfocused, the report said.

The panel recommended that over the next five years the NRC transform most of its institutes into a network of large-scale research centres involving business, universities and governments. The institutes with a business focus would become independent non-profit research organizations. Others that perform basic research would become affiliates of universities; and those with public policy mandates would be transferred to the relevant government department. Decisions about which institute should go where would rest with the NRC itself.

The NRC has already started down this path. “What we have asked them to do is go further and faster,” Mr. Jenkins said in a conference call with media. The result, he predicted, will be bigger and better-funded institutes.

The report said Canada needs a new approach to building public-private research collaborations and a revamped NRC could play a role in that, in the way that Germany’s Fraunhofer system of institutes does. The Fraunhofer is comprised of 60 non-profit institutes that conduct applied research, much of it by PhD students and faculty members in partnership with businesses.

But, Mr. Jenkins cautioned, change will take time. “It’s not something we can do overnight but it’s a direction we should definitely go in.”

The panel also recommended creating a new granting agency, the Industrial Research and Innovation Council, to oversee the government’s business R&D programs. The IRIC would deliver existing programs and some new ones. One pilot program proposed by the panel was for commercialization vouchers to be given to small and medium-sized businesses to help them defray the costs of commercialization services. These could be redeemed at various approved organizations including postsecondary institutions. Many companies don’t know about the wide range of research that goes on at Canadian universities, said Dr. Elbestawi of McMaster, and the voucher program would help make these services better known.

IRIC would also work with federal partners to consolidate and expand federal industrial-internship and youth-employment programs to create a larger more flexible program for senior undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Dr. Elbestawi said the proposal would, in effect, create a national co-op program for university students and postdocs. The report was submitted to Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear in late October. It was also notable for what it didn’t include: namely, any recommended changes in funding to the three federal research granting councils. The panel urged the government to commit to investing in basic research at internationally competitive levels but it also recommended clarifying the missions of the existing councils.

Read the full report here: Innovation Canada: A Call to Action (PDF).

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