Doubling down on impact
Researchers and institutions are under increasing pressure to maximize the impact of publicly funded research.
It’s changing the paradigm for how science is done – and who is doing it
Debbie Lawes
Ottawa-based science writer

Two realities have governed scientific research from its early days. The first is that only individuals with a Ph.D., or those in training for one, conduct research. Secondly, scientists are rewarded with tenure, promotions and grant funding for publishing their research in scientific journals that few outside of academia read.

That disconnect has been most pronounced between those who generate new knowledge and those who ultimately will use it. These “knowledge users” usually weren’t asked about their needs, didn’t participate in the research, and had little say when it came to translating the results of that research into practical applications.

Dr. Vivek Goel, Vice President, Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto (U of T), described this as the “traditional knowledge-push” approach.

How times are changing. Government and philanthropic research funders want to see more “knowledge pull” from those needing solutions. As a result, they are demanding greater accountability for publicly funded research, including meaningful partnerships with non-academics and evidence of impact. At the same time, many of today’s so-called “wicked problems” have no easy solutions – everything from climate change and conflict to obesity and homelessness. A better way was needed.

“Now the talk is about co-creation of knowledge,” says Goel. “You sit down with your community partners from the very start to identify what’s important to you, what problems you need solving and how we can work with you … It can’t be something the universities do own their own. It has to be led by the community.”

U of T has taken two recent steps to encourage collaborations that increase research impact. One has been strengthening partnerships with local government, community groups and charitable organizations. “We created a staff position in our research services office to court those sort of partnership projects … we’re really starting to build that research area,” says Goel.

In 2017, the university also established the President’s Impact Award to recognize researchers who have an impact on society beyond academia or a specific field of research.

“We recognize great teachers and great researchers at U of T but we have not similarly recognized those individuals who take their research out of the university and have an impact on society,” explains Goel. “It gives these scholars recognition and credit for those activities, beyond the traditional ‘publish or perish’ reward approach.”

Research by and for Inuit

Maximizing the impact of scientific research has become essential in Canada’s far north where the effects of climate change are affecting everything from food security and health to housing and infrastructure. The urgent need to understand and adapt to those changes is transforming how research is done: from research on Inuit to research with Inuit and, more recently research by and for Inuit.

This evolving approach reflects the findings of the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which stresses the importance of research models in which “Aboriginal communities have ownership, control, access, and possession.”

Université Laval has been a pioneer in northern research for more than 50 years. Today, it is the host institution for several major programs, including the Arctic-Net Network of Centres of Excellence, the Amundsen research icebreaker, Sentinel North and the Quebec Northern Institute. In one project Laval’s Dr. Michel Allard is collaborating with residents in the small village of Salluit in northern Quebec (Nunavik) to understand how thawing permafrost will impact their plans for new residential and economic development.

“The goal is to help them to produce urban planning maps for community expansion, and improve the stability and safety of their major infrastructure like airport runways and bridges,” says Dr. Eugénie Brouillet, Laval’s Vice Rector, Research, Creation, and Innovation.

“We also have to integrate their knowledge into the planning of the research and the project itself,” she adds. “The results need to be directly relevant to the community’s needs.”

The Quebec Northern Institute, for example, has a First Peoples Working Group that includes members from the Cree, Innu, Inuit and Naskapi nations who define research needs and priorities for indigenous communities. Similarly, ArcticNet has Inuit representatives on both its board of directors and management committee, “so they are involved in all aspects of the research program,” explains Brouillet.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has promoted research by and with Indigenous peoples since the early 2000s. It is currently looking at ways to better support Indigenous-led research.

“How can we make it easier for non-academic institutions to be involved and to partner with researchers?” says Dr. Brent Herbert-Copley, Executive Vice President at SSHRC.

“We have put in guidelines for the evaluation of indigenous research across our funding so that peer review committees have guidance in terms of how to make judgements on that,” he says. “We also work really hard to involve indigenous experts and scholars in our adjudication committees. Where we have committees that are dealing specifically with indigenous research, we involve elders in that process.”

A recent review of SSHRC’s partnership activities found that research is more likely to have an impact on policy and organizational practice when non-academic partners are deeply integrated in the research project, including establishing its objectives and planning the work.

Several reports published in recent years show that Canada needs to do better in accelerating the application and translation of knowledge.

Marc Fortin, Vice-President of Research Partnerships,
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
Such was the case with Laval researcher Dr. Marie-Hélène Gagné who has a longstanding partnership with child protection agencies in Quebec to reduce the incidence of child neglect and physical and psychological abuse. That partnership produced a model for child protection services that has been adopted in parts of Quebec, resulting in decreased wait times, better quality of service and better access to services.

“That’s a nice example of where the researcher, working in close partnership with social service agencies and non-

governmental organizations is leading to concrete changes on the ground and meaningful change in terms of peoples’ lives,” says Herbert-Copley.

Putting “knowledge users” first

Granting agencies like SSHRC and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) want more of their grantees – the knowledge generators – to partner with knowledge users.

“Canada ranks ninth amongst 34 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in terms of the most often cited publications, so we do well in terms of knowledge generation,” says Marc Fortin, Vice-President of Research Partnerships at NSERC. “But several reports published in recent years show that Canada needs to do better in accelerating the application and translation of knowledge.”

Towards that end, NSERC wrapped up a cross-country consultation in October with companies, public sector organizations and not-for-profits on its Research Partnerships Programs. NSERC plans to shrink its six programs into one, creating a single point of entry to quickly and easily start a first partnership and then grow it.

“We are modernizing and simplifying those programs to increase the connectivity between different components of the innovation system,” says Fortin. “And as part of that, we will make municipal governments and community organizations partners in those projects, with funding support, which wasn’t the case before.”

Co-constructing science

“Co-construction” has become the latest buzzword when talk turns to maximizing the impact of research. Dr. Martha Crago, Vice-Principal (Research and Innovation) at McGill University, says applied research involving academics and external partners is becoming the norm.

“This is the way research is done now,” she explains. “And it goes beyond consulting with stakeholders. You are constructing the research project with them. They’re definitely part of the research team, and are listed on the (research grant) application.”

There was little funding in the past for such collaborations. A significant change came in 2012 when SSHRC introduced partnership grants to support new and existing collaborations in the social sciences and humanities. One beneficiary of this new model has been Dr. Elena Bennett, a rising star in the field of environmental sustainability at McGill.

“She develops approaches to measure, map and model ecosystems and ecosystem services the land provides,” says Crago. “And she produces these easy-to-use tools and practical information that governments, industry and communities can use to understand the ecosystem impacts of their planning decisions.”

Several university tech transfer offices are expanding beyond patents and commercialization to focus more on community engagement. “Some universities now have community liaison officers who help researchers work with non-government organizations and communities,” says Crago.

Canada’s year-old National Housing Strategy also benefited from grassroots engagement. York University professor Dr. Stephen Gaetz partnered with A Way Home Canada, a national coalition to end youth homelessness in Canada, as well as people who are or have been homeless.

The result was a series of policy briefs that demonstrated how the government could reduce chronic homelessness by 50% over the next decade by focusing on prevention, crisis response and helping people exit homelessness.

“The key differentiator with Steve’s work is that it’s really based on the needs of the homelessness sector, as opposed to someone who just studies it,” says Dr. David Phipps, York’s Executive Director, Research and Innovation Services. “He is alongside the people who are working in it and engaging with people with lived experience of homelessness. It’s what I call demand-driven research.”

York created its Knowledge Mobilization Unit in 2006 to facilitate such partnerships. Led by Phipps, the office has helped researchers like Gaetz apply for grant funding and develop better ways to share the results of his research with non-academics, including the use of easy-to-understand infographics.

“Our Knowledge Mobilization Unit helps to bridge the all-important gap from new knowledge to real-world application,” says Dr. Robert Haché, York’s Vice-President Research and Innovation.

Matching need with talent

“What keeps you up at night?” It’s the first question Mitacs usually asks when determining which post-secondary experts are best equipped to solve your problem.

Supported by both the federal and provincial governments, Mitacs provides matching funds for graduate student internships that help companies and not-for-profits address a particular research challenge. Students, in return, gain valuable on-the-job training and a paid internship.

“Having experience in a company is really a game changer for the students to acquire skills that the university can’t provide in the classroom,” says Dr. Alejandro Adem, CEO and Scientific Director at

Mitacs. “It also gives the best researchers at the university an outlet for impact on the economy.”

Many interns end up working with these companies after graduating. Ford Canada, for example, benefited from the University of Windsor’s expertise in motion capture technology to make assembly lines more efficient and safer for workers. Some of those interns are now Ford employees.

Mitacs has bold plans for the future. It received $221 million in the last federal budget to provide 10,000 internships annually by 2020-21 and is asking Ottawa for additional funds to extend the program to college students and university undergraduate students.

“The 10,000 internships are just a small piece of a potentially huge market of providing these experiential living opportunities very broadly,” says Adem.

Achieving impact at scale

Coming up with a new and improved technology often isn’t good enough. Often, the bigger job is translating that technology into a solution that benefits millions of people.

In 1992, for example, Canada established the Micronutrient Initiative, a small pilot program that evolved into Nutrition International, the world’s largest supplier of key micronutrients to malnourished infants and children. The program, which began at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), has been a major contributor to global efforts to ensure that at least 70% of households worldwide have access to iodized salt, which protects millions of newborns from mental impairment.

Having experience in a company is really a game changer for the students to acquire skills that the university can’t provide in the classroom.

Dr. Alejandro Adem,
CEO and Scientific Director, Mitacs
Building on that success, U of T researchers came up with a simple and cost-effective way to fortify salt with iron, as well as iodine. IDRC support through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, jointly funded with Global Affairs Canada, enabled the project’s public and private sector partners in India to rapidly scale up the production and local distribution of double fortified salt (DFS). It is now available to more than 50 million people in three Indian states.

“Multiple actors need to be involved to achieve this kind of scale,” says IDRC President Jean Lebel. “Now we’re seeing demand from Africa for DFS and there’s research ongoing to expand beyond two micronutrients,” including folic acid, vitamin B12, and zinc.

IDRC research has also translated into diplomatic successes for

Canada. Its research with South Africa’s exiled democratic movement beginning in the 1980s later helped the government of Nelson Mandela evolve from pro-apartheid technology policies that stifled investment and innovation to ones that facilitated trade, commerce and international collaborations.

More than half of Mandela’s cabinet members had been recipients of IDRC funding in such fields as health, urban issues, and economic and industrial policy.

“The big outcome of this is that it has strengthened ties between Canada and South Africa,” says Lebel.

Combatting climate change

While bureaucrats from Canada, the United States and Mexico were toiling over the intricacies of a new free trade agreement, scientists from the three countries were working on an even more formidable challenge: to dramatically accelerate the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

That effort is part of Canada’s commitment to Mission Innovation, an initiative of 22 countries and the European Union to double public investment in in clean energy innovation. Leading scientists and thought leaders from around the world met September 2017 in Mexico City to identify opportunities to fast-track the discovery of high-performance, low-cost materials for new clean energy technologies. The workshop was sponsored by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the Mexican Ministry of Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The group later produced a 108-page roadmap for an automated platform for the chemical and materials lab of the future – one that integrates artificial intelligence, robotics and materials science to cut the time to develop new materials for clean energy from 20 years down to one or two years.

“This document is the only substantial research roadmap to come out of Mission Innovation to date and CIFAR is very proud of that,” says John Hepburn, Vice-President, Research at CIFAR. “This is a basic research program that’s also cutting-edge science. The idea is that this would revolutionize materials discovery.”

Much of that groundbreaking work is happening at the University of British Columbia, which received about $10 million from Natural Resources Canada to establish the Ada lab, led by CIFAR Fellow

Dr. Curtis Berlinguette and Dr. Jason Hein. The lab’s robots are made by North Robotics of Victoria BC.

The Ada lab will work closely with another CIFAR Fellow, Dr. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a Mexican-American scholar in theoretical and computational chemistry and the lead author on the roadmap report. This summer Aspuru-Guzik moved his lab and team from Harvard University to accept a Canada 150 Research Chair at U of T.

“This is an opportunity for a Canadian-based company and for Canadian researchers to lead in a field that is relevant to climate change and clean energy,” says Hepburn. “We’re talking about real impact, not just on the potential for materials discovery but also on how research is done.”

Building on our strengths

The automotive industry is Ontario’s largest manufacturing sector. It is also the single largest auto jurisdiction on the continent, producing one in every six North American-built vehicles. But the industry is facing strong headwinds, including disruptive technologies, global competition and shifting trade patterns.

To help prepare for those changes, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) received $80 million in provincial funding to support a new Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network. The AVIN includes six demonstration sites where companies can partner with academic researchers and local municipalities to develop and test new technologies, access specialized equipment and obtain technical and business advice.

“We need to build on Ontario’s strengths in the auto sector because the business is changing,” says Dr. Tom Corr, President and CEO of the OCE, which connects industry with academic research. “Facilitating these transactions and pulling the players together – the researchers, big companies, small companies – that’s the secret sauce we bring to the table.”

The OCE also manages Ontario’s participation in an ultra-high-speed fifth-generation (5G) wireless corridor extending from Quebec City to Windsor. Industry heavyweights Ericsson, Ciena Canada, Thales Canada, IBM Canada and CGI have invested in the $400-million ENCQOR (Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation), which aims to unlock the massive potential of smart cities, e-health, e-education, connected and autonomous vehicles, on-demand entertainment and media, and the Internet of Things.

Our projects are now more problem-driven.

Marc LePage,
President and CEO, Genome Canada
“The program will allow small- and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups to access this technology and build applications that can be exported around the world,” says Corr.

Supporting start-ups

Ryerson University likes to boast that “entrepreneurship is in our DNA”. The downtown Toronto campus is home to DMZ (aka

Digital Media Zone), the top university-based business incubator in the world according to UBI Global. Since its launch in 2010, the space has nurtured 357 start-ups that have raised nearly $518 million in seed funding and created more than 3,400 jobs.

“The zones support experiential learning and engagement,” says Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-President Research and Innovation at Ryerson. “One of the nice things about the Ryerson model is the zones are open and permeable to external participants and partners. It’s not solely focused on things arising from Ryerson.”

One successful DMZ graduate is the incubator’s own co-founder,

Dr. Hossein Rahnama, a former Ryerson student whose research into artificial intelligence and contextual computing led to the creation of Flybits. The company uses these advanced technologies to empower enterprises to connect with their customers more meaningfully through micro-personalized experiences. In addition to technology support, DMZ provided Flybits with seed funding through its venture arm, Ryerson Futures.

“Ryerson Futures was launched as a vehicle to draw venture capital for companies that may be coming out of Ryerson or ones we engage with globally,” says Liss. “Ryerson Futures is now global with hubs from South Africa to Asia, including the Bombay Stock Exchange, as well as in Europe and the U.S. It exposes Ryerson to a global range of opportunities.”

Helping children with rare diseases

Nowhere is the demand for real-world results more pressing than in the area of human health and disease. Canada achieved a global first this year with a nation-wide initiative in precision medicine. Led by Genome Canada, the initiative will initially establish clinical sites across Canada for genetic testing for rare diseases, a field where Canada excels internationally. Rare genetic diseases impact about one million Canadians, mostly children, and are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat.

“In health research the Holy Grail is to get into the clinic,” says Marc LePage, President and CEO, Genome Canada. “Yet genomic testing to identify rare diseases is not applied anywhere in Canada. It is not a standard of care and rare diseases are really difficult to diagnose. We have all these young kids going around for months, if not years, without getting a proper diagnosis.”

Increasingly, Genome Canada is expanding beyond health care to develop genomics-based solutions for diverse sectors, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries, the environment, and more recently, oil, gas and mining.

“Our projects are now more problem-driven,” adds LePage. “We’ve had agricultural projects that deal with seed performance, animal genetics or antibiotic resistance. In fact, our funding in agricultural and natural resources, taken together, is now bigger than our funding on health.”

Debbie Lawes is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.