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Cumberland looking to get into applied research

College would be second in province to do so
Tom Weegar, the college’s CEO and president, would like to see Cumberland expand into applied research. Submitted Photo/Cumberland College

Cumberland College is hoping to tap into grant programs that have only been accessed by one other college in the province.

Tom Weegar, the college’s CEO and president, would like to see Cumberland expand into applied research.

“Applied research is essentially when an organization or an industry or a non-profit comes to a college and says we’re having a challenge with this particular process or bringing this particular product to market,” explained Weegar in an interview Dec. 21.

“The college tries to make a fit with a particular faculty area – it might be business, it might be culinary arts, it might be trades,” he said. “It really is all about innovation, new products, new growth.”


How it works

Getting into applied research in Saskatchewan is a challenge, in part because the provincial government has previously said that colleges are not to engage in it (more on that later).

The other difficulty is gaining eligibility to apply for the grants themselves. Three councils give out grants: National Science and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

To gain eligibility, a college has to show, for example, that it has the proper accounting programs and ethics policies in place.

“We could apply anytime now. What’s holding us back at this point is getting together with industry,” said Weegar, who said a grant application could occur this year.

“It’s just a matter of getting busy people together, sitting them down, and saying what are your research needs?”


Where the research could happen

Weegar pointed to Hanfood, a Chinese company looking to set up shop in Nipawin, as a possible partner.

“One [option] is with our business program around how we best market overseas... What are the catchphrases what will grab them for Canadian, Nipawin, honey?,” he said. “The second is... what kind of honey products and flavours can we produce here that the Chinese market would love?

“This would involve maybe doing focus groups, going overseas, meeting with Chinese officials, talking to Chinese focus groups.”

Cumberland’s president also pointed to a potential partnership with the Kelsey Trail Health Region in researching why mothers stop breastfeeding and what methods could be used to encourage them to continue.


Cumberland’s single predecessor

Parkland College was the first college in Saskatchewan to tap into applied research grants. Gwen Machnee is the co-ordinator for university programs and applied research.

Machnee said that the provincial government wasn’t enthusiastic about their plan.

“In fact, they told us to cease and desist,” she said in a phone interview.

“Colleges all across Canada are involved in applied research and it’s really grown enormously in the last ten years,” said Machnee. “We really didn’t want Parkland College and Saskatchewan to be left out of the possibility of doing research.”

Four years ago, Parkland ran five agriculture projects. The next year, they ran 12. Over the past two years, Machnee said the college has run 20-something agriculture projects.

The program was boosted by a partnership with the East Central Research Foundation, which had expertise and equipment, and with the City of Yorkton, which allowed the college to use land for research purposes.

Machnee said the biggest benefit to applied research is providing students with experiential learning.

“They actually get to work on the projects,” she said. “So they get experience of doing the research right when they’re either in a SaskPoly program, a skills training certificate or diploma program or degree program.”

Machnee added that it keeps instructors active in their field and leads to economic development and cooperation among local organizations.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic has done applied research, including projects related to beer brands and cleaning up former gas station sites.


Hesitant provincial government

A Jan. 20 statement from the Ministry of Advanced Education stated that the ministry “supports increased engagement in applied research by Saskatchewan colleges.”

The statement went on to say that “colleges are invited to seek status to lead applied research projects, which are funded primarily by third parties.”

This was news to Weegar, who was pleased to hear the government’s response.

John Belshaw is a British Columbia-based consultant who helped Parkland College successfully apply for federal research funding. He said that provincial governments across the country have been uncertain about colleges and applied research.

“There’s a false dichotomy that’s drawn between teaching and research. This is a teaching-based institution, your focus is teaching. That really describes a very narrow understanding of what education looks like,” he told the Review.

“There’s an irony here. When a Ministry of Education says, you’re a teaching institution, they’re really cutting off the kinds of learning opportunities that they assume they’re creating,” said Belshaw.

Though Parkland was contradicting the provincial government’s edict by pursuing applied research, the college hasn’t experienced any repercussions.

“They haven’t told us to stop,” said Machnee. “I think what really helped was we were able to access federal money.”


What it would cost

When a college applies for a grant through SSHRC or NSERC, it’s expected to contribute either funds or in-kind contributions.

“There are creative ways to demonstrate that in-kind,” said Weegar. Industry experts’ time, use of college facilities, equipment and expertise from local industry could all be built in to the college’s contribution.

“The province is saying to us, don’t use provincial money on this, which kind of bugs me. It says to us: ‘not important. If you’re going to do it, we’re going to hold our noses and let you do it, but don’t spend our money.’”

An applied research program would also require faculty’s time. Weegar said he would look for funds to allow release time for instructors, meaning they would teach one or two fewer courses a week in order to devote time for research.


Why Cumberland wants to jump on board

Weegar, like Machnee and Belshaw, sees many advantages and positive outcomes that may come from entering the field of applied research.

He said that if colleges don’t do research with small to medium-sized enterprises (SME), no one else will.

“If colleges aren’t doing research with SME, who is? It’s not the universities, it’s not SaskPoly, because they don’t have time and they’re on other, bigger, grander things. If colleges aren’t reaching out and engaging with those small businesses around innovation and growth, who is?

“The answer is nobody.”

Belshaw echoed that idea.

“It’s hard to imagine circumstances where, with all the best will in the world, the University of Saskatchewan or the University of Regina are going to show up and engage in what we call collaborative research… or community based research.”

He said that benefits can be significant for small producers.

“[They] don’t have the resources to build enough capacity for research. They know there’s an issue, but they don’t have the wherewithal to put a big enough test case to demonstrate whether this is the way to go forward or not.”

Finally, the students have a lot to gain from applied research, according to Belshaw.

“The ideal situation is one in which students get an opportunity to engage directly in learning-based research, so they’re not just learning about this project from a textbook, they’re getting their hands dirty, meeting people in the community who are engaged in economic activity.

“If you got nothing else out of it, this would be great.”

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