When it comes to research, U of A, it can be fairly said, has opened
its arms to industry. It holds 22 NSERC Industrial Research Chairs, 18
within the faculty of engineering. That’s the largest number of IRCs in
the country, double the number held by any other university. Funded on
a “cash-match” basis by NSERC with industry, the average chair holder
receives between $300,000 and $400,000 in funding per year for five-year
terms that are renewable, providing ample research dollars for professors
and their students.
Established in 1983, the program currently supports 175 chairs at
universities across the country. The idea is for chair holders to build long-term, sustainable partnerships with industry, while also helping universities to build critical mass in research areas of their choosing, says Janet
Walden, vice-president of NSERC’s Research Partnerships Program. For
U of A, this has meant building a strong base of research in energy and
natural resources engineering.
“What you see at the U of A is an interesting example,” says Ms.
Walden. “Working with the oilsands industry around them, they’ve been
able to build those partnerships and expand that kernel of expertise into
a large mass of expertise in oilsands and related technologies.”
U of A didn’t get its first IRCs until the early 1990s, a couple of years
before long-serving dean David Lynch took the helm at the faculty of en-
gineering. The faculty had added chairs sporadically to its roster, but Dr.
Lynch and his colleagues decided to take a more strategic approach. Giv-
en the economic importance of energy and natural resources to Canada’s
economy, he figured the growth potential of the sector would create plen-
ty of opportunities for research. Collaborating with industry via the IRC
program seemed a natural strategy to develop this academic expertise.
So, rather than just waiting for individual researchers to identify a
project with an obvious industry tie-in, the faculty’s administrators actively encouraged researchers to connect with industry, develop research
ideas together and apply for the chairs program. Since then, U of A has
rapidly grown its roster of IRCs in engineering.
“Success breeds success,” says Lorne Babiuk, U of A’s vice-president,
research. He expects that over the years, engineering professors have
likely felt encouraged to apply for IRC opportunities after seeing their
colleagues have success with them. It has also helped that the university
has a culture that encourages academics to work with industry, he adds,
and has a research infrastructure that can benefit industry.
“We have some extremely expensive equipment here,” says Dr. Babiuk.
“If industry needs access to, let’s say a $10-million electron microscope,
they’re not going to invest in that microscope for a short time period.”
It’s much easier to partner with an institution and use their equipment
to solve a problem.
At the moment, the faculty of engineering is developing another 10
IRC applications, hoping to bring U of A’s total to 30 within the next
couple of years. This is doable, given U of A’s track record – 100 percent
of its applications have been accepted by NSERC. That said, regardless of
which institution is applying, acceptance rates are quite high, generally
around 80 percent. NSERC offers assistance at the start of the process to
ensure researchers and their universities put forward the best case possible to avoid wasting time and resources. “It’s a very dynamic process
and there’s a lot of back and forth,” says NSERC’s Ms. Walden.
The process begins with a researcher approaching a prospective industry partner – often a company that the researcher has worked with in
the past, says Dr. Lynch – to see if there’s a long-term project that might
benefit both parties. In addition to having a keen faculty member, companies need a committed employee to work as a liaison.
Finding the right people to shape a project can take months, “but you
don’t want to rush it,” says Dr. Lynch. When an application is finished, it’s
sent to NSERC and then vetted by an international panel consisting of at
least five experts in the field with no connection to the prospective chair
holder. On top of reviewing the application, these experts do a site visit,
meet with the parties involved and then write a site report. “This process,
from the day we submit [the application], could take six to nine months
to receive approvals,” says Dr. Lynch.
While the process might seem time-consuming, chair holders say it’s
well worth it. For engineering professor Murray Gray, whose IRC in oilsands upgrading concluded in October 2012 after two terms, the chair
allowed him to focus on doing his research on bitumen extraction and
publishing it – not applying for funding. His experience with industry, he
says, has also significantly enriched his undergraduate teaching.
Simaan AbouRizk, who has held the same IRC in construction engineering and management since 1997 (he’s in his fourth term), says the
chair has been most beneficial to his graduate students, a point emphasized by many of the chair holders who spoke at the Ottawa dinner in
October. “I think our main mission is to produce high-quality personnel,”
he says. To that end, his IRC has provided his students with the opportunity to understand the needs of industry, to do applied research and to