Doubling up

🕔Apr 07, 2009

In their effort to address current economic conditions and make better use of scientific resources in the area, northern BC’s post-secondary institutions are discovering that great minds do indeed think alike.

Since last fall, Northwest Community College (NWCC) has been embarking on the first phase of its Applied Research and Innovation Program by doing preliminary work in communities across northern BC to pinpoint areas where applied research is needed.

Earlier this year, the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) announced its proposal for the New North Foundation, an initiative that would similarly attempt to better connect researchers with the communities they work in.

But neither made the connection until last month. “When I heard the university was embarking on this proposal, I immediately contacted the president of the university,” says NWCC House of Learning and Applied Research (HLAR) executive director Jim McDonald, who first learned about the similar program when it was announced by UNBC president Charles Jago in late January. “We can complement each other and support each other, and we should.”

Despite hosting much of the province’s natural resource industry, the North receives less than two percent of its research funding, according to UNBC. As tough economic times threaten to upend the northern economy as we know it, now is the time to be doing applied research that will benefit local communities and help transition them into a new era, both institutions say.

“One of the functions of a college is training people for the workforce. These days, the workforce is changing and requires different skills from people,” McDonald says, noting that applied research could involve anything from computer programming to sustainable home building. “In order to turn out qualified people, there needs to be more attention paid to applied research.

“We need to give our researchers a higher profile and link them with community needs. The next stage will be in knowledge mobilizations and mobilizing skills.”

Research benefits
Unlike basic research, which seeks knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake, applied research aims to have a more direct impact, such as economic, social or environmental benefits. By better connecting researchers to community needs, it’s hoped that more precise applied research strategies will help pull the North through its current economic slump.

“Times are tough and mills have closed, but I still get a sense that we’ve been here before. This isn’t a new thing,” says Rob van Adrichem, director of media and public relations for UNBC. “I really think we have a different attitude where we recognize the importance of working together.

“There’s a sense of collaboration, and of using the colleges and universities to move our region forward.”

The New North Foundation was implemented “100 percent” in response to current economic conditions, van Adrichem says. While he says that fluctuations in research funding don’t necessarily rise and fall with the economy, he adds that putting increased resources toward research would help ignite the local economy.

“It’s really meant to take the application of economic development research to a new level. I think what it comes down to is making universities and colleges and the work we do integral to the region.”

The New North Foundation is still at the concept stage, but van Adrichem says the program will be seeking input from across the north at the university’s annual general meeting in May. Within a year, the university hopes to see most development work completed and a more formal plan in place.

Research opportunities would include forest policy, bio-energy, environmental sustainability, transportation and economic diversification, as well as increasing productivity.

“What still needs to be developed is exactly how this will work,” van Adrichem says about the program that aims to connect researchers to each other, communities, First Nations, and industries such as mining, oil and gas, forestry and agriculture. “This is why we have a university here. It’s not just for fun. We’re supposed to be here as a resource in developing our region.

“We keep classifying the north as a resource economy, but we have an infrastructure in the north through the colleges and university that’s an incredible knowledge infrastructure.”

Putting assets on the map
NWCC anthropology professor Rick Budhwa has been conducting initial scoping and asset mapping for the HLAR program. While he says it’s not yet known what physical form the project will take, a community-accessed database would serve to connect community members with good ideas to the researchers and funding agencies that could make them a reality.

Having the established infrastructure would also make it easier for researchers to get funding, he says.

“It’s going to have some physical incarnation that’s going to allow people to have better access to applied research,” Budhwa says.

“People are losing jobs and we’ve got to shake things up. It’s a great time for new ideas to be realized.”

The project, whose initial phase is funded through the National Research Council Canada, has been underway since September. A team is consulting with researchers, residents, First Nations organizations and small- to medium-sized businesses across the North, gathering input on needed research projects that would lead to beneficial innovations.

HLAR will also collaborate with economic development agencies, such as local chambers of commerce and municipal governments, to identify specific community needs. The program also hopes to connect research organizations currently in operation across the North, such as the Northwest Science and Innovation Society, the Forum for Research and Extension in Natural Resources, and the Bulkley Valley Research Centre.

While NWCC’s satellite campuses connect it with smaller communities, Budhwa notes that the university has access to a different set of funding, networks and researchers, which would make joining forces beneficial. He adds the parallel projects reinforce the demand for better connecting applied research to the community.

“That right there establishes starkly that there’s a need. Really, you have two parallel processes with similar intentions and different strengths,” Budhwa says. “I honestly think this is a collaborative rather than a competitive initiative.

“It’s all about our community, our region, our people. Having the strength of both these initiatives doubles the chances for success.”