Science and the next generation: partnerships and collaborative infrastructure as enablers
Organized by: Public Services and Procurement Canada, Anne-Marie Thompson
Speakers: Dr. David Castle, Vice-President Research, Professor in the School of Public Administration with an adjunct appointment in the Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria; Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation, McGill University; Dr. Stacey Robinson, Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada; Adjunct Professor at Carleton University; Dr. Dan Wicklum, Chief Executive, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)
Moderator: Dr. Mona Nemer, Chief Science Advisor, Government of Canada
Transformation of federal labs is opening new doors for collaboration
Canada’s third largest R&D spender – the federal government – wants to collaborate more with the country’s two larger R&D spenders, academia and industry.
Canada’s Chief Science Advisor said Canada’s $2.8-billion commitment to renew federal research infrastructure and labs is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to foster new collaborations with academia, the private sector, and even with other government departments.
“The idea is not to make new buildings which mimic the older ones, or move people to from one location to another,” Dr. Mona Nemer told CSPC delegates. “There’s much more to it than this.”
Dr. David Castle, Vice-President Research at the University of Victoria (UVic), stressed that this is not a “renovation” of government labs. Rather, he said this unprecedented investment will “transform how science is done in the country”.
Proven collaborative models
The panel speakers provided several examples of existing models that could inform the government’s approach to making its massive inventory of federal labs more collaborative.
One success in the private sector has been Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which has seen oil sands producers pool resources to improve the industry’s environmental performance. COSIA works with a network of 40 associate members, including universities, small and mid-sized companies and governments to identify the most pressing innovation needs of the sector.
“Instead of each individual company developing technology and holding it for themselves, they share it, so essentially we can leverage capacity, resources and funding and accelerate the pace of innovation,” said COSIA Chief Executive Dr. Dan Wicklum.
COSIA focuses its approach on two drivers: identifying actionable challenges facing member companies, and providing companies with access to testing infrastructure to validate new technologies.
But Wicklum cautioned that this “market pull doesn’t just happen. You really have to work at it in very deliberate ways so that the innovators are being pulled. Our major tool to break down that barrier is this joint articulation of need.”
The first step is asking companies what they need. COSIA members identified 90 technology gaps or needs which the alliance has condensed into 19 technology challenges that anyone can respond to, whether they be external companies, academic researchers, or other research institutes.
For example, COSIA has launched the Carbon XPRIZE, which will award $20 million to the teams that can best take carbon dioxide from flue gas stream and turn it into a valuable project. “Unless you have people to nudge that new sector (carbon, capture and utilization) along, it won’t happen by itself,” said Wicklum.
Castle said a similar approach is needed when the federal labs collaborate with non-government scientists. The first step is to understand each research community’s culture of practice and to ask if their research is being inhibited by a lack of access to certain infrastructure.
“Then work collaboratively between people who have the infrastructure and those who don’t or develop joint proposals to secure something they will then share,” said Castle. “It has to start with the nature of scientific work they want to do and then get people to prioritize and align directions.”
For example, Castle said the 50-year-old Triumf particle physics lab in Vancouver BC “is a really great example of the way universities, the government and the private sector use a very sophisticated platform to achieve their individual and mutual ends”.
UVic is currently reviewing how its research infrastructure, both on and off campus, can spur more opportunities to do collaborative research with the federal government. For example, Castle said UVic used monies from the Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund to renovate a 25,000 sq. ft. building on campus that is now home to the CFI Major Science Initiatives-funded Ocean Networks Canada.
The space will also accommodate two Environment and Climate Change Canada (EEEC) labs, as well as the newly created World Data System International Technology Office (ITO). Other Canadian partners in the ITO are the National Research Council’s (NRC) Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, the Canadian Cryospheric Information Network/Polar Data Catalogue (Canadian Space Agency, Meteorological Service of Canada, Natural Resources Canada).
“We don’t have a particular design in mind for what the science will evolve to become over the years, we’re simply using geography as an opportunity to see what kind of cross fertilization can happen,” said Castle.
Off Campus, he said there is an opportunity to transform some of UVic’s biological sciences research by sharing space at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s new Centre for Plant Health, which will be built over the next five years in Sidney, BC.
ECCC also partners with Carleton University to run the largest wildlife toxicology lab in Canada. At nearly 6,000 square metres, the National Wildlife Research Centre (NRWC) houses 15 labs, research greenhouses and a wildlife specimen storage facility.
Dr. Stacey Robinson, an ECCC research scientist, said the physical design of the facility “allows for a lot of conversations” between her group and researchers in Carleton’s biology department, which has a physical link to the NWRC.
“They also have a large research garden right behind my building so I can do large-scale mesocosm (outdoor) experiments in collaboration with others at Carleton,” said Robinson.
Exceptions to the “stacking” rule
Geography can be a major catalyst for collaboration, noted Dr. Martha Crago, McGill’s Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. She learned that lesson while working as VP Research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, a small city that is home to five federal laboratories.
“Everyone is working on the something to do with the ocean so it’s irresistible to have everybody start to work together,” she said.
Interestingly, those initial collaborations involved people more than equipment. That changed when Dalhousie researchers who were applying for Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding to purchase new ocean gliders learned that the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in neighbouring Dartmouth had gliders they weren’t using.
“While I was at Dalhousie, I also learned that there was an NRC lab about 50 feet away from the oceanography and marine biology departments and nobody was talking to anybody... but then I found out there was a shared piece of equipment. How did that work?”
AT the time, Crago said she didn’t realize it was possible to combine CFI funding with government funding. “I thought that was stacking (one type of government funding onto another). But it wasn’t. It was allowed.” Generally, stacking rules only allow for one federal and one provincial program to be used for the same project.
“When the U15 VPRs heard that you could match CFI equipment with government money their jaws dropped,” added Crago. “Nobody understood that. They (the federal government) could be the other match instead of the provincial government. That leaves the door open, as long as we can get into the NRC and those other government labs.”
Government departments can also contribute as partners in the Canada First Excellence Research Fund, as was done with the Dalhousie University-led Ocean Frontier Institute. Crago said federal labs can contribute money, in-kind, time and personnel.
The NRC has a long history of collaborating with academia, and plans to do even more in the coming years. For example, the Boucherville NRC near Montreal collaborates with chemists at McGill using equipment that was jointly purchased.
This summer, the Quebec government announced it would give part of the land occupied by the Royal Victoria Hospital to McGill, which Crago said the university wants to use as an interdisciplinary hub that will focus on research that is relevant to federal departments like ECCC and Natural Resources Canada.
“Could we intermingle in this space and not make a separate building (for government) with a door and a commissionaire, but have labs and groupings of people around equipment that is shared?”
How to co-manage shared infrastructure
When sharing equipment, Robinson said it’s essential to work out who will be in charge of maintaining it. “On a working level, how will this work so there aren’t hold ups when next person comes in to use the machine to do their work?”
Canada can look to other countries for best practices on the management and maintenance of core research infrastructure. For example, the physics and astronomy communities have come together internationally to share large, sophisticated and expensive infrastructure like particle accelerators and giant telescopes. Castle explained how participants had to develop detailed plans, often spanning decades, on how the facilities will be shared and managed between countries and various research groups.
Another challenge is having scientists and technicians with the skill to manage large-scale research infrastructure. For example, Castle said UVic is in the process of hiring someone, in collaboration with Hitachi Canada, to manage the high-end CFI-funded equipment in its Advanced Microscopy Facility. “This is emblematic of a really important talent piece we need to develop.”
CSPC delegates also heard how federal labs will become part of the CFI Navigator, an inventory of all major science infrastructures in Canada that is available for collaborations.
To help manage the federal lab transformation, the government recently appointed George Enei as its first Assistant Deputy Minister of Federal Science and Technology Infrastructure.