A major research partnership between technology giant IBM Canada Ltd. and seven Ontario universities marks a first large step in a federal strategy to drive Canadian innovation and prosperity by retooling the way government spends research dollars.
The initiative will create substantial new research capacity using supercomputing and cloud computing, which are needed to grapple with vast troves of data researchers now collect and store. IBM will contribute up to $175-million by 2014, pooled with $20-million in federal funds and $15-million from the Ontario government.
Cash-starved universities have welcomed these new sources of research money as cost-effective paths to greater discovery and innovation, even as some remain wary of inviting too much industry influence.
But the partnership also highlights Ottawa’s new-found conviction that it must target strategic, direct investments to get businesses involved in more research, and to squeeze more bang from its buck – a key theme of last month’s federal budget.
“Private-sector participation in research and development … is lagging,” said Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology. “We’re focused on better [job creation] those better-paying jobs, those longer-lasting jobs.”
IBM will recruit 145 employees for its research and development centre, and negotiate individual research projects with private partners and seven universities: the University of Toronto (which will play host to a new supercomputer), Western University (which will house major new cloud-computing infrastructure), plus Queen’s, McMaster, Waterloo, Ottawa and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Each school will have access to a large data centre being built in Barrie.
A “starter kit” of topics for exploration includes neurological disorders, water conservation, and smart energy grids, said John Lutz, president of IBM Canada. But the company’s primary aim is to funnel the skills of Ontario researchers into its “pipeline of innovation.”
Mr. Goodyear, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other government officials have repeatedly lamented that Canadian businesses are spending less now on R&D than they were before the 2008-09 recession, in spite of a generous tax incentive regime.
But the notion that governments can successfully pick innovation winners, such as IBM, is not without controversy. Businesses tend to have shorter time horizons than academic researchers, and the fear is that too much emphasis on industry-led research may detract from the kind of pure, or “blue sky,” research that often leads to major science and technology breakthroughs.
University leaders aren’t raising alarms yet, but some concede that could become a concern if too many research dollars are earmarked with commercial interests in mind.
“I think there’s definitely pressure to play the game. The game just happens to now be commercialization and innovation,” said Kevin Hall, vice-president of research at the University of Guelph. “So you generally tend to morph a little bit to follow the funding envelope. Does that mean you give up your ideals? Absolutely not.”
Industry influence is a sensitive topic in higher education, especially after York University’s reluctant decision last week to abandon a contentious partnership agreement with a private think tank.
Nevertheless, University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope stresses that finding common interests with industry can be “an incredible win,” and need not skew a school’s research agenda.
“I actually cannot think of an example in six years of being president where an industry has come to me and said, ‘we will fund X only on the following conditions,’” Dr. Toope said.
In the IBM partnership, universities can refuse to take part in any project. But joining with the company offers access to technology they could never otherwise afford.
“You not only have state-of-the-art infrastructure and new highly qualified personnel working for IBM, but we have a chance to access that infrastructure … according to our preferences,” said U of T president David Naylor. “I can’t imagine anything more straightforward or sensible.”
With files from Barrie McKenna