Speech from the President: Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) 25th anniversary

Ottawa, Ontario
April 23, 2014

Thank you, André, and good morning to all.

It gives me great pleasure to attend this special gathering of the NCEs.

Anniversaries are important. With the 25th anniversary of the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, we mark the early recognition by Canadian research funders of the importance, to achieve research excellence, of bridging disciplines and fostering collaborations.

Twenty five years ago, the concept of research networks was novel and, like anything remotely avant-garde, viewed by many with suspicion.

Not that the notion of collaboration between researchers from different universities did not exist, but it was neither extensive nor formalized.

In the words of Michael Hayden, leader of one of the first NCEs, the highly successful Canadian Genetic Diseases Network:

"People were focused on their own institution, on their own labs. They had success, but not nearly at the level of what could be accomplished by working with other researchers across the country. The concept of core facilities serving national interest wasn't there. It wasn't seen."

Visionaries such as Dr. Fraser Mustard of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, however, saw the opportunity for a "university without walls," virtual networks of researchers combining expertise to advance understanding in complex fields.

He also visualized a collaborative workspace to join those working in the academic setting with those working in industry.

Partnering with industry. Here is another concept for which the Networks of Centres of Excellence have been the standard-bearer. And here again, not without raising some concern. Just think of it: contaminating research results with notions of commercialization!

And yet, among the 45 Networks of Centres of Excellence created over the last 25 years – not even including commercialization centres, business-led networks and knowledge mobilization networks – there have been numerous industrial partnerships which have generated marketable intellectual property.

Since its inception, more than $2 billion in research, commercialization and knowledge translation have been funded by the NCE program. And these investments have leveraged more than $1.5 billion in contributions from industry and other partners.

In 2012-2013, Networks and Centres counted 3,098 partners, including 1,512 from industry.

The Networks and Centres have helped train more than 42,000 highly qualified personnel over the past 25 years.

The NCEs have also been the proving grounds for many valuable new technologies and treatments. Over the past 25 years, the program has led to the creation 138 spin-off companies and an incredible 453 start-up companies.

As you know, Canada is now the envy of many nations, including in Europe – which has largely emulated our model – and the United States, for its networking capacity and its talent in maximizing its resources.

The model of Networks of Centres of Excellence has also undeniably influenced the strategic and operational direction of the Tri-Council. We need only think of the emphasis now put on multidisciplinarity, networking and public-private partnerships in many of our strategic programs!

Networks of Centres of Excellence were also the first to bring back to respectability so-called applied research, which has often been viewed as less prestigious than fundamental research. Over the years, the networks have become the Tri-Council's preferred instrument for knowledge transfer and ‘valorization.' And they are undoubtedly one of the most original support vehicles for the commercialization of research results in Canada.

As we consider the accomplishments of the NCEs, it pays to look to the future and ask ourselves how we can improve the model. In my opinion, a few areas stand out.

First, if we are to increase our return on investment, private-sector engagement must be strengthened, particularly with small- and medium-sized enterprises.

There's no doubt that we understand better the mechanics and infrastructure of technology transfer and commercialization. But, I would assert that we have still not fully absorbed the underlying dynamics driving this process.

Let's consider the arguments of Adam Chowaniec, Chair of the NCE's Private Sector Advisory Board, who reminded us in a recent Hill Times column that the sheer novelty and complexity of a new technology is simply not enough to create a viable product. Value is derived from:

  • a deep understanding of client needs;
  • a realistic understanding of market needs; and
  • a realistic assessment of how the new innovation fits into a competitive environment.

All of these factors are not part of the traditional research worldview, but if our ambition is to deliver transformative research, we need to ensure they are addressed.

Second, I believe that the success of future NCEs should be measured not only in terms of commercialization but, more broadly in terms of « valorization » to use the French terminology. Valorization as in social benefits, as in health improvement, as in increased productivity, as in improved standards of living.

Innovation is clearly the engine of our social and economic development. And precisely because the Networks of Centres of Excellence are based on multidisciplinarity and collaboration, they offer a unique platform for translating research into innovation.

As such, are we doing enough to use the networks to foster innovation and to fully explore the most promising areas of science?

One way to ensure that we do, and here I speak as the head of one of the three Councils, is to fully integrate the NCEs within the Canadian S&T landscape. To ensure that Council-specific programs do not duplicate what the NCEs are already achieving but that, on the contrary they keep the talent flowing through them and that they fully exploit their translational capacity.

As I conclude my remarks, Il would like to congratulate and thank all of those who made this extraordinary 25 year adventure possible: the funders who dreamed it, the researchers who believed in it, the industrial partners who invested in it and, last but not least, staff of the NCE secretariat who over the years have had faith in this program and have held it together.

Thank you. Merci.

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