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From the admin chair

A plea for a united, full-strength Canadian science

“ People are working to solve their differences and trying to build pathways for collaboration.”


One of my motivations for moving to Halifax in 2008 was to work on a particular puzzle in an intriguing setting. Halifax is a city that has a research-intensive university with over 100 researchers in ocean-related science and scholarship, as well as five federal laboratories that are involved in one form or another of ocean science. One of these is situated right on the Dalhousie campus, a stone’s throw away from the university’s oceanography and biology departments. This looked like a golden opportunity to bring government and university science together to do synergistic research.

Since then, I have learned that people in government refer to their research as intramural science and universities’ research as extramural science. People in universities see it just the other way around. Our science and scholarship is internal to us and the government scientists are outsiders. At a time when walls are a hot-button issue south of the border, we might do well to find a new way of thinking about who is inside and who is outside. In fact, there are a number of interesting initiatives where the science walls in Canada are becoming more porous. However, there are others where people are still working to solve their differences and trying to build pathways for collaboration.

A recent article in Research Money (November 9, 2016) describes the major increase in funding to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard that was announced in the 2015 budget. A significant amount of this money will be allocated through a new unit, the Office of Partnership and Collaboration, which will help fund joint projects between DFO and others, including universities. On the other side of the so-called wall in universities, some of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund’s initiatives will involve federal scientists and will provide funding for projects that have scientists from both inside and outside of the university working on them.

This past year, researchers at Dalhousie and many other Canadian universities experienced an equally welcome form of engagement from the government. When the Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition was formed last year (University Affairs, January 2017), researchers at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Statistics Canada, stepped in to help by providing much-needed information and some seed funding for building partnerships with German researchers. That mutual involvement will continue as other immigration and refugee research projects get underway.

Germany is a useful example of government sponsored, non-university research institutes with links to universities. The Max Planck, Helmholtz, Fraunhofer and Leibniz institutes, all with different mandates, are often connected to universities or university researchers located in their vicinity. Graduate students working with researchers in these various non-university institutes are granted their degrees through neighboring universities.

The strength of German research is supported by a combination of three pillars: funding for universities from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG; funding by the federal and state governments to the non-university institutes mentioned above; and a very sizable expenditure on research by industries. The industry funding of research is far larger than the other two sources combined.

Germany started an excellence initiative through the DFG in 2006 that has served as a Fund. It consisted, in part, of funding for graduate schools for the highest level of research training and for clusters of excellence in research. In a number of instances, graduate schools and excellence clusters have involved Max Planck, Helmholtz, Leibniz and Fraunhofer institutes, large businesses and SMEs that are associated with universities in their regions of the country. In the descriptions of the German model of funding that I have read or heard about, the terms extra- and intramural are not used.

As Canada thinks about how to improve research and innovation, we need to take advantage of all researchers in our country – those in our National Research Council laboratories and in our federal science and social science departments, as well as in our universities and industries. We need to find different models and exciting new ways of bringing them into partnerships. The full group of Canadian researchers is the warp and weave of this country’s research fabric.

Let us make that fabric strong by increasing our work together in the common interest of improving the life of our citizens and newcomers.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Lokis / January 11, 2017 at 14:09

    NRC labs are notorious for their lack of actual science leading to competitive advantage to any industry – we are too small an economy to splitter our resources off as the writer struggles to convince.

  2. Alison / January 12, 2017 at 00:33

    While I support the author’s statement that collaboration among universities and government agencies is important and must remain a priority, I would argue that, at least in the natural sciences, in the Prairies, there are already fewer walls between avenues of inquiry and information sharing than the author suggests.

    From what I have seen, there is regular collaboration between federal and provincial science, research, and policy groups and post-secondary institutions across Canada in agriculture, forestry, biological, and environmental sciences. Collaborative research involving both post-secondary institutions and government bodies regularly informs policy decision-making at the provincial and federal levels in the Prairie Provinces. I can only speak for the natural sciences in the Prairies, because my own professional experience does not extend much beyond that scope. Broad generalisations about the state of research relationships across a nation as diverse as Canada are difficult to parse without adequate analysis, but my own academic career, as well as the careers of many of my colleagues, has been a product of inter-agency collaboration.

    The presence of government research offices ON university campuses across Canada suggests that there are friendly, collaborative relationships in a number of areas of inquiry (examples at the University of Alberta include the National Institute for Nanotechnology building, and the housing of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute on the main campus, and the location of the Canadian Forest Service building and the provincial government’s agriculture offices on the South Campus research farm).

    We can see further examples of such relationships with some of the high-profile, news-making initiatives from the past few years:
    – studies into human-caused-grizzly mortality in the Mountain Parks, as studied by Parks Canada and the University of Calgary and University Alberta,
    – ongoing collaborative commercial forest productivity research and policy development involving the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, University of Alberta, commercial forest industry partners, the provincial government of Alberta, and the Canadian Forest Service,
    – the development of Canadian climate change impact metrics like the Climate Moisture Index, developed by scientists at the Canadian Forest Service and Environment Canada, and employed in further research by the Prairie Climate Centre, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Network, University of Saskatchewan and University of Alberta, amongst others, and
    – analyses of the cumulative effects of industrial activity in the Boreal forest, involving the University of Alberta, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Lakehead University, Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, Alberta Energy Regulator, industry partners, and the Provincial and Federal governments, among others.

    The University of Alberta has even collaborated with the Helmholtz Institute, identified in the article, to form an independent international research partnership focusing on two key areas: energy and the environment, and health and life sciences.

    From the experiences of my friends and colleagues, these are not isolated incidents, limited only to the Prairies, but brief examples of collaborative work that is also occurring elsewhere in the country, between post-secondary institutions and a broad range of federal and provincial agencies. Regardless, it is important to note that, like any relationship, inter-agency collaboration requires effort to be maintained. As an individual graduate student, that meant my research questions were evaluated by a diverse range of partners and I had to present preliminary results to cross-sector audiences, but it also resulted in regularly participating in cross-agency knowledge-sharing and learning from “visiting scientists” in our laboratories and office spaces. We may well have witnessed a decrease in activity from these kinds of relationships as the restrictive federal policies of the early 2010s and financial impacts of the economic downturn were felt among collaborative partners, and groups pulled inwards to preserve what remained. It is the responsibility of all parties to develop and foster effective, collegial relationships in order for there to be meaningful inter-agency and inter-institution partnerships. Arguably, such relationships could even make us more resilient in difficult times.

  3. Yves Gingras / January 20, 2017 at 10:49

    It is always uplifting to see someone who wants to be useful to jump on what “looked like a golden opportunity to bring government and university science together to do synergistic research”.

    But suggesting that these government laboratories and unversities should be “brought together” presupposes that they were not already collaborating when you perceived the “golden opportuinity” to help them talk to each other.

    But a simple check would have shown that in practice those institutions did not wait the arrival of a new kid on the block to work together… For instance, between 2001 and 2005, 40% of government laboratories papers were co-signed with university researchers, a proportion that went up to more than 50% a decade later.

    The lesson is simple: when some new manager arrive, he/she should first check out the existing practices before taking for granted than nothing existed before…

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