University research for industry soars

Businesses are increasingly relying on universities to help them with science and technology research
The members of the panel on academic-industry collaborations all advocated for closer partnerships between universities and businesses. From left to right are moderator Graham Bell, and panellists Paul Doherty, Janet Walden, Lorne Whitehead and Kamiel Gabriel. ((Emily Chung/CBC))
Businesses are increasingly relying on universities to help them with science and technology research. 

University research contracted by businesses increased five fold between 1999 and 2008, to $1.97 billion, reported Janet Walden, vice-president of research partnerships for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Friday.

In addition, NSERC currently contributes $260 million a year to programs involving partnerships between universities and industry — far more than the $140 million that the businesses themselves contribute. 

Funding involving industry now represents about one third of NSERC's budget, and is expected to grow. The agency wants to double both the number of academic-industry partnerships and industry participation rates in NSERC programs by 2014-15, Walden said.

'These sponsors aren't paying for the research out of philanthropy. They want results.'— Janet Walden, NSERC

She presented the figures as part of a panel titled "Universities as economic powerhouses: industry-academic collaborations" at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Montreal.

"There's a lot of research pull," said Walden of the contract work and industry contributions. "These sponsors aren't paying for the research out of philanthropy. They want results."

The University of Ontario Institute of Technology has had success in generating patents and startups, says Kamiel Gabriel, the university's founding associate provost of research and graduate programs. ((University of Ontario Institute of Technology))
Despite that, Canada has consistently received poor international rankings on innovation. On Oct. 14, the federal government appointed an independent expert panel to consult Canadians and business leaders about how the federal government can boost business research and development.

At the time, it cited 2008 figures ranking Canada 16th of 35 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on business spending on innovation, even though the country spent the second-largest proportion of its gross domestic product on tax incentives and direct support for business research and development out of the 35.

When asked why increased access to public research resources isn't boosting Canada's business innovation rankings, Walden said partly it's that other countries have boosted their innovation output more. "Everybody else is doing 10 times better."

Businesses are also now starting to see universities as part of their own research endeavours, she said.

Businesses cutting their own research

"Where we've seen increases in this contract kind of research, we've seen decreases in business doing the research itself," she said. "So it's not all a plus game."

Later, when asked if she thought programs supporting university-business partnerships discourage businesses from doing their own research, she said there will always be a certain stage of research when companies feel they need to continue completely in-house to protect their proprietary competitive advantage.

The Canadian university academics who made up the rest of the panel all agreed that universities should work more closely with industry than they do now.

Paul Doherty, director of Conrad Centre of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of Waterloo's Stratford, Ont., campus and Kamiel Gabriel, founding associate provost of research and graduate programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., cited their own institutions' success at generating startups by focusing on industry links.

Lorne Whitehead, a physics professor and former administrator at the University of British Columbia who holds an NSERC/3M industrial research chair, acknowledged that some people fear industry-academic collaborations will take away from the pure research done by universities.

But he said there's been no evidence in the past 20 years that that has happened, since industry research tends to bring money into universities.

"Applied research attracts its own resources," he said.

Whitehead said that industry tends to work on problems where the benefit is less than three years away, universities tend to work on problems where the benefit is more than 10 years away. He said far more PhD students should be harnessed to do research that fills the gap.