The “dog’s breakfast of innovation”

Alberta’s innovation framework is getting a facelift. But it’s more than just a nip and tuck. Bill 27 is reconstructive surgery which the government justifies as necessary to ensure Alberta is a strong contender in the emerging next generation of knowledge economy.

Bill 27 was introduced to the spring sitting of the legislature by Doug Horner, Minister of Advanced Education and Technology.

When passed, it will be known as the Alberta Research and Innovation Act, and it will reconfigure such icons of the province’s scientific landscape as the Alberta Research Council and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. Neither will recent initiatives like Alberta Ingenuity, iCORE, and the various research institutes avoid resculpturing.

According to Horner, it’s about alignment and focus.

“When you look at the number of organizations that we have within the province, they’ve been created in some cases out of a desire to react to a specific sector, or a specific proposal. But, to give you an example, life sciences: The Life Sciences Institute crosses a number of different territories—nanotechnology, biosciences. It crosses into the health field. So why wouldn’t you group that under one?”

He comments as well on nanotechnology and ICT. As enabling technologies, they cross many boundaries.

“So we’re bringing them together to give focus. What we’ve said is we need to have an institute that’s responsible for answering questions in health. Let’s have an institute that’s responsible for answering questions in energy and the environment. And let’s have an institute that’s responsible for answering questions within the biosciences sphere. And then let’s have one group that’s responsible for taking those answers and turn them into a commercially viable or social good or whatever the outcome is supposed to be, but do it all right here in the province.”

So how does this all play out?

The intent of the proposed legislation is to enable the government to create one new advisory body and four provincial corporations. The Alberta Research Council, Alberta Ingenuity and related programs from Alberta’s ICT strategy would merge to form a new organization focused on technology commercialization.     

The Alberta Energy Research Institute will become the energy and environment corporation. A new bio-industries corporation will be formed by the merging of the current Alberta Agricultural Research Institute, Alberta Forestry Research Institute, and Alberta Life Sciences Institute.

iCORE, the Informatics Circle of Research Excellence, will cease to exist, its functions integrated into the province’s funding of research capacity in post-secondary institutions.

As for the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, it will become a new provincial corporation with a stronger focus on strategic health research.

What will happen to the billion dollar endowment funds for AHFMR and Alberta Ingenuity? Horner sings the praises of these two research funding agencies, but recognizes, “Times are changing. The framework is changing. Those endowments, the way they were operated before… are they going to work better in this new framework or do we need to change the structure there? And, I think the word that came back was change some of the structure. Don’t change the endowment. Leave the endowment so there is still the resource there to fund and to attract and to keep those highly qualified people. But make sure it’s a part of the new framework and not outside of it. And that’s really what we’re doing.”

How did we get here?

Afterall, the Alberta Research Council dates back almost 90 years. The AHFMR came to life in 1980 and its success is the envy of many countries around the world. So successful that, in 2000, the provincial government created a new scientific endowment in its image, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Scientific and Engineering Research or, as we know it, Alberta Ingenuity.

Says Horner, “We brought together about a year-and-a-half ago all of the stakeholders and representatives from all the different places within our research and innovation system. There were pretty close to 200 people in the room. We put up a map of the innovation system. I called it the dog’s breakfast of innovation in Alberta today. We just asked the question of the stakeholders of the system, is that the right framework for what you are doing today and what you are going to do in the future? And frankly, the answer was no. Change was needed.”

What has followed over the ensuing months is a lot of soul searching and questioning. There have been reviews by international panels and many, many meetings.

“The legislation that we introduced this spring, Bill 27, is a response to what the stakeholders told us they wanted it to look like,” explains Horner. “Remember, too, the framework is really the train tracks. Everybody else will put those cars on the rail. Our job is to build the track and make sure it connects the right places to the right tracks. And that’s really what this framework is all about.”

But even as Bill 27 is discussed in the legislature, many of the critical operational details of the new framework have yet to be worked out. Who stays? Who goes? What happens to current research projects and programs?

When asked if this new framework with its focus on three main priorities works to the detriment of basic research, Horner answers with an emphatic “no”.

“I don’t know how I can be much plainer than just to say that’s BS… because that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re saying is basic research is a prime component of the ongoing funding that we provide to post-secondary education in the Province of Alberta. The research and innovation agenda—the extra dollars that come through—have always been project specific even to the part of the NSERC grants that have been provided through the federal government. And many of the other projects that come through have almost always been peer reviewed. They’ve almost always been project specific. We’re never going to step away from peer reviewed, quality research within the province. And basic research is a part of that.”

A fourth pillar of the new framework is a strong emphasis on commercialization or getting technology to market, and doing so within Alberta. To help that process along, the province will set up a “concierge service”. Much like a concierge in a hotel, Horner’s service will “take and hold that inventor by the hand, bring him through our entire system so that he commercializes his idea here.”

He points out, “The most successful jurisdictions in commercialization around the world talk about a cluster concept. There’s a cluster of supports around that innovator. So if there’s a venture capitalist across the street, there’s a business plan guy next door, there’s a prototype facility down the road. There’s Stanford University there, maybe I can get some research done. The whole cluster is there.”

The province has already invested in a number of initiatives including the voucher plan for prototype development to attract venture capital to Alberta.

Horner says, “As you get the momentum going, things start to happen and people start to think about what’s going on in little old Alberta up there. And in this economic climate right now, we’re getting a lot of attention because we are almost an island in this tsunami of economic meltdown.”

Will this new framework for research and innovation work? Only time will tell. Over its 89 years, even the Alberta Research Council has been reinvented several times. The government’s purpose hasn’t really changed since the days of Henry Marshall Tory, then president of the University of Alberta. As Tory put it, the government’s overall intent in 1920 in establishing the scientific agency was “to lay the foundations of accurate knowledge upon which we can build our industries with security in the future.” √

 http://www.advancededucation.gov.ab.ca/research

 To hear Cheryl’s conversation with Doug Horner, visit http://www.innovationanthology.com

Cheryl Croucher hosts Innovation Anthology which is broadcast on CKUA Radio at 7:58 am and 4:58 pm Tuesdays and Thursday. Or download the podcasts at www.innovationanthologyy.com


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