Colleges, polytechnics say time is right to boost funding for applied research

Originally featured in Research Money - Number 9: Volume 31

By Veronica Silva Cusi

Polytechnics and colleges are once again making the case for what they say is a fair share of funding for applied research.  In their pre-Budget submissions to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, Polytechnics Canada, and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) are asking to double the funding made available to applied research in previous Budgets.

This isn’t a tall order, as far as colleges and polytechnics are concerned, since the government has, for years, given billions of dollars to universities for basic research. And while that investment in fundamental research has waned in recent years, it towers over the relatively paltry sums afforded applied research and Canada’s network of colleges and polytechnics.

Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, says Polytechnics has been consistent in its  submissions to the finance committee, recommending growth in the one program that supports the entire college and polytechnics – the College and Community Innovation Program.

“Over the 14 years of the existence of my association, the one and only thing we have always asked, when it comes to the federal government, is that there be adequate funding for polytechnics applied research,” says Robinson.

Polytechnics Canada wants the federal government to double the $53 million annual funding for CCIP, which supports over 110 colleges and polytechnics. In its submission, Polytechnics Canada notes that the entire college sector, including polytechnics, is getting only 1.7% of $3 billion in annual federal funding for higher education R&D and just 5% of NSERC;s total budget.

CICan states in its submission that $100 million per year in the next Budget is the “first step towards ramping up this investment to $300 million per year by 2022.”

CICan CEO Denise Amyot says now is the opportune time for a “major increase” in funding for colleges’ research and innovation because this has not been given adequate attention in previous Budgets. And with the federal government recently putting focus on research and innovation, it’s time for a major shift in funding mindset.

The government’s roadmap for research and innovation is spelled out in the Innovation and Skills Plan in the 2017 Budget, and government-funded review of basic research funding that resulted in the Naylor Report. With colleges and applied research falling outside of the scope of  the Naylor Report, Amyot says CICan needs to continue to advocate for applied research. She says colleges need to advocate on behalf of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up more than 99% of firms in the country and employ more than 90% of the private sector workforce, and they want to innovate. Yet, colleges have to turn SMEs down because colleges don’t have funds to collaborate on applied research.

“That doesn’t make sense,” says Amyot. “For every dollar that’s coming from the federal government, there’s almost a dollar coming from the private sector. But now we are at a phase where we have to turn that (request) down. Since when do you turn down requests from the private sector to do research?”

“Federal funding is simply not keeping up with the demand that we have. It’s not using the full potential of colleges and institutions in terms of research and innovation. It remains untapped,” she adds.

Amyot expresses confidence that the government will respond positively to its funding recommendation. In fact, she says she would be “concerned” if the government turns them down.

“(That’s) turning down possibilities of more investment by SMEs. Why would you say no to that? Companies are growing new products, new services. It would be missed opportunities,” says Amyot.

Both Polytechnics Canada and CICan are confident that there’s new money to fund applied research.

“Government is well-provisioned; the economy is growing,” says Amyot. “Innovation is an investment; it’s not an expense.”

“If the government can provide billions for basic research, I think the government can afford doubling the one program for colleges and polytechnics,” says Polytechnics Canada’s Robinson.

As to where the government will get the new funds, Robinson said this is always a challenge. But with recent economic growth, the time is right for new funding for applied research.  The Bank of Canada recently increased the benchmark interest rate by a quarter percentage point to reach 1%. This second rate hike in a matter of two months is due to stronger-than-expected economic data, the Bank said.

Boosting CCIP just the beginning

But funding is only one of many recommendations that Polytechnics Canada and CICan submitted to the Finance committee. CICan’s Amyot says colleges also want $25 million per year for research support. This fund will help establish colleges and institutes as innovation centres in their communities and regions.

Polytechnics Canada also wants its members to be part of the Innovation Superclusters Initiative that the government announced in last year’s budget and is advocating a regional commercialization voucher program to stimulate regional innovation, and deepen industry-academic ties,