Move over G5 and G13, here come the Colleges

With the increasing trend towards funding non-peer reviewed research, it was only a matter of time before everyone got in on the action. The colleges are the latest entry into what is becoming a packed field. And, the growing influence of Canada’s colleges amongst our decision makers is not to be underestimated. The Association of Community Colleges of Canada is reportedly one of the most effective lobbies in Ottawa and in various provincial capitals. Why not? After all, there are many more MPs representing ridings with small colleges than in those with major universities.

Now, it was hardly a surprise that one of the G5 Presidents, David Naylor, was selected to be on the government’s six-member R&D expert panel, which is scrutinizing Canada’s innovation and commercialization strategy. But the appointment of Nobina Robinson on that panel must have been a surprise to those not following the emergence of the Colleges. Indeed, Ms. Robinson is the chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada, which represents nine colleges and institutes of technology that grant degrees. Their stated focus? Research for industry.

I’m sure you can already see the argument: Colleges, and not the universities, are the ones that are really bringing the fruits of research to market. While university professors are mostly concerned about doing research for the glory and for peer-recognition, the onus has been on college faculty to transfer that knowledge to the industrial sector. How clever and potent is that!

The taps were turned on a couple of years ago and now are running flat out. Witness the trend in the distribution of the $2-billion in Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) funding, where the bulk seems to have gone to the smaller, often rural (but hardly research-oriented) community colleges. For example in BC,  of the $237.3M allocated to 44 projects in more than 27 post-secondary institutions, only one (valued at $31.7M) went to a G13 university (UBC). Since KIP is about research infrastructure, you’d think it should be possible to pick out the institutions that are eligible – but try to name even ten colleges in BC judged to be research intensive. Funded programs reportedly include a new “café” at Camosun College’s library in Victoria, the Department of Biology in Trinity Western University (TWU), as well as Atlantic Baptist University. Not much research to show for. See Rob Annan for more on KIP.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2010 and you can see how the message is more focused, starting with the last announcement from CFI calling for $32.5 million for a College Fund. “Although research isn’t a core mandate for community colleges, the College Fund will be supporting programs that involve working with industry to bring products and ideas to market.“

This move by CFI is by no means an isolated incident. NSERC also has now a $35 15-million College and Community Innovation (CCI) Program, which offers four types of grants:

The applicant for all CCI grants is a college administrator. College faculty are involved as participants. It would be interesting to know if they are using the holy trinity of the Discovery Grant criteria: Excellence of the researcher, Quality of the proposal, and HQP.

The Innovation Enhancement Grants (IE) is actually a joint initiative with the CFI’s new College-Industry Innovation Fund. Both are meant, “to foster partnerships between colleges and the private sector that will lead to business innovation at the local, regional and national levels”. You do catch the drift!

Colleges then receive a comprehensive funding package supporting research costs from NSERC’s CCI-IE Grants, and research infrastructure through the CFI’s new College-Industry Innovation Fund. Isn’t it too nice to be true?

These developments actually come at the tail of a well-heeled campaign to position colleges as the avant-garde of Canada’s efforts in innovation and technology transfer. The strategy is standard. First, hope that the Conference Board of Canada comes up with the right findings. Surely enough, a quick Google search leads to this: “Colleges in Ontario are making positive contributions to the economy, businesses and individuals by stimulating applied research and development (R&D) and accelerating much-needed innovation, according to a Conference Board of Canada study released today at the Ontario Economic Summit.”

In a non-subtle dig at the major universities, the report continues, “Businesses reported that working with the colleges reduced delays in their projects, lowered costs, increased quality, and provided ideas and opportunities for additional collaborations. The students, meanwhile, were given industry-relevant experience, and improved their technical and entrepreneurship skills, and employability. “

Then, the Globe and Mail confirms by headlining that, “Colleges are partnering with industry and government to thrust Canada onto the world stage.” The article looks more like a paid commercial than an op-ed. But it does the job. One can only be impressed by the breadth of the listed projects selected among the more than 3,700 applied research partnerships undertaken by the Canadian colleges and polytechnics with a range of industry interests.

According to Jim Knight, executive director of the Association of Community Colleges of Canada, the college-industry relationship is growing tighter by the year. In the current fiscal period, for instance, the private sector contributes $45-million to support a total of 3,795 college-private sector partnerships. That’s a huge jump from the 515 partnerships on $4-million contributed in 2005-2006.

Good for them! But dare we ask – what are these partnerships? Did they produce actual research or were they glorified consultancy work subsidized by the taxpayer?

And what is coming next to NSERC and CFI? The High School Fund for Business sponsored science projects?

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4 Responses to Move over G5 and G13, here come the Colleges

  1. An interesting post, but I think there are a few misconceptions that need to be cleared up. First, a quick look at the Industry Canada website shows that while the university component of the KIP Program was indeed about research, the college component was directed more at education – or as the website puts it, “for projects that strengthen [colleges’] ability to deliver advanced knowledge and skills training.”

    NSERC’s programing also supports university/business interaction and engagement – I believe there are 18 programs in all on this front, four of which are for colleges. They are increasingly being branded under the Strategic Partnership initiatives. A quick estimate is that there is $150 to $200 million a year for these types of programs out of NSERC’s billion-dollar budget. And, I believe the annual budget for CCI is $15 million, not $35 million

    Most people would agree, I think, that colleges should be doing some applied research with local industry, so the $45 million is money well spent. Keep in mind, however, that universities are also working with industry and the not-for-profit sector, and this represents about $1 billion in contract funding for universities from each sector.

    Oh, and I believe NSERC is already funding high school science projects!

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