The cost of doing (applied research) business

Dr. Marc Nantel
Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation, Niagara College
Chair, National Research Advisory Committee (NRAC, CICan)

Canada’s colleges, cégeps, polytechnics and institutes (“colleges”) are deservedly lauded for their role in training the next generation of dental assistants, nurses, pipe-fitters, and computer programmers, amongst others. According to Colleges & Institutes Canada (CICan), there are over 670 college locations across Canada, and 95% of Canadians live within 50 km of them. Colleges add over $190B annually to Canada’s economy and contribute to inclusive growth by working with employers to offer programs in urban, rural, remote, and northern communities. This is a well understood role of the colleges.

One crucial contribution that is newer and often forgotten, is that of applied research and economic development. For the past 10 years, thanks to funding from NSERC, CFI, and other federal and provincial agencies, colleges have greatly enhanced their engagement with industry – especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – by essentially becoming their research department. Universities and national laboratories research is generally centered on the discovery of new knowledge and far-reaching technology platforms. Colleges are focussed on providing faster, closer-to-market solutions for SMEs that need solutions now. And we’ve been very successful at it. According to reported numbers (so, likely underestimating), more than 7,300 research partnerships resulted in the development of more than 1,400 prototypes, 500 processes, and 350 services last year alone. The vast majority were collaborations with SMEs, which will commercialize the new products.

What types of products and services? Things that make a difference in the lives of ordinary Canadians: New web-based software to improve electronic medical records, and the connected hardware to facilitate aging at home; a new type of asphalt made of 98% recycled industrial waste; a new process to obtain purer lithium for better rechargeable batteries in electric cars; and a panoply of new beverages to please all palates, from light ciders to non-alcoholic beers to, soon, cannabis-infused anything! Colleges enable the creation of thousands of jobs every year, at small companies, but also at larger firms like Ferrero, Airbus, John Deere, IBM, and SONY.

All great news. What’s the catch? We’re coming to it. All this activity by colleges is managed and orchestrated by the institutions’ research offices. Because funding for colleges is usually institution-based, the task of outreach to industry, as well as the strategic direction followed by the college, is the purview of those research offices, which have a huge impact on the successes exemplified above.

So here it is: None of the great results college applied research achieves across the country could happen without the work of the research offices, and yet they are run on inadequate resources, often on a shoestring budget. This is because, unlike our university cousins, colleges are not sufficiently supported for their non-project costs of research. While the provinces typically supply the building/electricity/heating infrastructure, and specific project grants provide some of their budgets (20% at most, often less) toward administration directly related to said projects, there is no provision for the support of the indirect – but very real – costs of research. These include such critical items as project scoping, financial and compliance monitoring, outcomes reporting, research data and research ethics board management, and human resource processes to hire students for the projects. All of these activities are necessary and mandated by government – not optional – but are not explicitly supported by the research funding.

The college applied research endeavour has grown greatly in the past 10 years, mostly organically. It was bootstrapped by those pioneering institutions – such as Niagara College – that got into this adventure early, and is now a serious contributor to Canada’s innovation landscape, creating jobs and vital products to improve the lives of all Canadians. But we’re hitting a wall. There is so much more demand from industry to grow through innovation and exports, but our system is reaching a breaking point. It cannot grow anymore to answer this demand and deliver great outcomes without serious support for the indirect costs of research.

Partnerships rule the college applied research system. We have made good on the outcomes we provide to our partners; it’s time our most significant stakeholder – government – awarded the delivery of these amazing outcomes by investing in the funding of indirect costs of research. Imagine how much more we can accomplish together.