This article first appeared in Re$earch Money.
By Dr. Ted Hewitt
Research conducted in the post-secondary sector has in the past been regarded as too inwardly focused. Yet there is increasing evidence of a broad "opening-up" of the academy to research collaboration with a wide variety of partners in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. This trend was recently underscored in the US by a National Science Foundation report released in August 2012.
The study found that the percentage of total R&D monies attracted by US universities and transferred to external research partners for the purposes of collaboration increased from 10% in 2000 to over 15% in 2009. Notably, funds passed by universities to the private sector for this purpose grew most quickly during the period, accounting for just under two-thirds of the more than $4 billion transferred in 2009.
In Canada, a similar trend is occurring across all disciplines. Indeed, research in the social sciences and humanities —the disciplines that focus on human thought and behavior — has undergone a major transition in recent years. Both the scope and the complexity of such research have in fact grown immeasurably as research questions have become more complex, and research findings ever more in demand by businesses, institutions and community associations.
A review of applications to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in all programs over the past 10 years, for example, shows a definitive trend towards multiple authorship involving (on average) two to three co-applicants. In addition, scholars are collaborating more frequently with colleagues from other disciplines.
A 2008 survey found that only 5% of researchers in the social sciences and humanities described their work as "exclusively disciplinary". And interdisciplinarity now extends across campus and across communities. For example, the number of partner and sponsoring organizations cited in funding applications to SSHRC has increased from fewer than 100 in 1998 to over 2,200 today. While well over half of these were from the higher education and not-for-profit sectors, over 10% were from business, and another 20% from agencies of government.
Similar findings were reported in a 2012 cross-disciplinary study of more than 1,400 projects funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation between 2008 and 2011. Overall, just over 80% of projects included linkages with "partners".
Of these, 76% of projects involved collaborations with the academic sector; 26% counted partners in the public and not-for-profit sectors, and 29% involved partnerships with the private sector. Ten percent reported partners in all three sectors. Within the social sciences and the humanities specifically, researchers were more likely to engage with the public and not-for-profit sector, with close to 40% reporting such linkages. Close to 20% reported collaborations with private sector partners, just below the mean engagement rate of 29% for all disciplines.
Still another analysis of some 1,500 final research reports received by SSHRC between 2010 and 2011 indicated that council funding had supported projects which together counted linkages with no less than 1,700 partner organizations. The study also revealed a strong focus on real-world impacts across sectors. For example, 11% of lead researchers believed their work would directly benefit the economy; 31% anticipated contributions to the arts and culture, and 23% to the development of government policies and programs.
With enhanced support for collaborative research at the federal level, there is every expectation that such trends will continue. At SSHRC, program architecture renewal has ensured greater responsiveness to partnership opportunities within each of its Insight, Talent and Connection portfolios. SSHRC has introduced Partnership Grants and Partnership Development Grants that build on the legacy of its highly successful Major Collaborative Research Initiatives, Community-University Research Alliance and International Opportunity Fund programs.
Through these and other programs, multi-sector partnerships will continue to yield benefits across communities, organizations, and industries. For example, forestry producer JD Irving Ltd and a number of non-governmental organizations have teamed up with the University of New Brunswick to identify a collective approach on issues such as biodiversity conservation, forest habitats, climate change and carbon emissions to ensure a vibrant economic and environmental future for the region.
A multidisciplinary research initiative at the University of Waterloo involving Christie Digital Systems has brought stunning display technology to Canadian cinemas; and by applying findings from a project at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivieres, high-precision mechanical equipment maker Usinatech enhanced productivity and client satisfaction.
In addition, funding is now offered through SSHRC's partnership programs for linkages between post-secondary institutions and employers in the private, public and not-for profit sectors to enrich the research training experience for students and post-doctoral researchers, while facilitating their transition to academic or non-academic workplace settings.
Through these opportunities, students benefit from on-the-ground experience in research practice, and employers benefit from access to new knowledge, research skills, and potential gains in productivity and innovation. As a result, Canada benefits through the development of a talented workforce, increased productivity, job creation and economic development in its communities and regions.
In the emerging milieu of "engaged scholarship" of the early 21st Century, the strength of tradition combines with innovative practices and methodologies to build knowledge and benefit society. Enhanced collaboration within and especially across disciplines is an increasingly important component of this process that is helping not only to transform the way we conceive of scholarship but to build lasting and successful cultures of innovation in Canada.
Dr. Ted Hewitt is executive VP of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and former VP research and international relations at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario).