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Realizing a grand vision for digital media

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Led by Kellogg Booth, the GRAND network is helping transform Canada's digital media research landscape.

Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) have been putting the creativity and inventiveness of top Canadian researchers to work on tough social, economic and health issues since the first network was launched in 1989. The program’s large-scale collaborative focus offers a uniquely Canadian response to the need for new knowledge in a specific research area.

But setting up and running an NCE is not for the faint of heart. It calls for well-seasoned leadership, with vision, diplomacy and a willingness to make the tough calls. Equally critical are timing, ensuring that researchers and partners are ready to take collaboration to the next level, and having a critical mass of talent to draw on.

Still, the rewards can include an opportunity to transform the research landscape of a given field.

Just ask Kellogg Booth, the Scientific Director of the Graphics, Animation and New Media (GRAND) network. Launching GRAND in 2009 was the culmination of more than a decade of direct efforts by him and his colleagues to start an NCE.

Not surprisingly, GRAND’s eventual mission evolved significantly during that time. Dr. Booth credits unsuccessful 1997 and 1999 attempts to apply for NCE funding with helping inform and refine the proposal that eventually succeeded. “It was the testing ground for us thinking about the marriage between art and design on the one hand, and technology on the other, and it was the beginning of our thinking about bringing in the social sciences and humanities,” he says. The research environment evolved as well, with more top social scientists focussing on digital media and stronger ties developing with the art and design community.

Experience is key

The intervening decade also saw him playing a key role in the Network for Effective Collaboration Technologies through Advanced Research (NECTAR), funded by NSERC. “In some ways, NECTAR was the prototype,” he notes. “All of the governance structures that the NCE was expecting, we had some experience with over five years in NECTAR.” That all-important experience included working with multiple researchers and universities, finding ways to distribute funding equitably, meeting reporting requirements, managing a board of directors and an internationally based research committee, and establishing ties with industry.

The majority of the NECTAR team of researchers made the jump to GRAND, including a number of current theme and project leaders.

A network is about connections

Another invaluable experience for Dr. Booth was his participation in two other NCEs: the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems and the Telelearning NCE. Those roles and his observations of other NCEs over the years taught him some important dos and don’ts that he applied to managing GRAND.

For example, he has made it a priority to prevent a silo mentality from building up, a problem he has witnessed where leaders of a theme or project compete with one another rather than looking for ways to support one another. The solution: make GRAND’s research program highly interconnected, an approach he argues can serve other networks as well. Network investigators are expected to work on more than one project, and each project should relate to at least two themes. “We’ve told projects that there’s something wrong if you’re only relevant to one of our themes,” he explains. “We’re willing to accept that, but we need a really good justification.”

This structure helps guarantee that researchers from different disciplines work together from the start, rather than producing independent results that are merged later on. A sampling of GRAND’s list of network investigators reveals professors of English, history and art, working alongside professors of architecture, psychology and business, with computer scientists, engineers and the occasional surgeon added to the mix.

Flexible model puts resources in the right place

GRAND’s process for allocating funding features equally interactive characteristics. “The very nature of digital media research argues very strongly for a more bottom-up approach,” Dr. Booth explains, adding that the network’s leadership has worked hard to ensure people’s loyalty is not vested in a single project or theme. While some network researchers initially resisted this unfamiliar approach, he has been gratified to see those people comment later about how valuable it was.

The bottom-up approach means GRAND researchers are invited to say which projects they want to work on. Funding flows first to the researcher, who allocates a portion to each project he or she is working on. Rather than the overall level of funding for a project being determined by the network’s leadership, it is determined by the total resources various researchers choose to put into the project.

The funding approval process includes checks and balances to ensure one project or theme does not get an excessive slice of the pie, including establishing preset network targets for the proportion of funding going to a given theme.

The results, says Dr. Booth, help the network spend money where it will have the greatest impact. The structure offers the flexibility for researchers to change direction or explore new opportunities without waiting for the next research committee meeting. “Our people have been selected because they have a really strong track record of making good decisions. What we tell them is, ‘If something good comes up, start working on it and use your funds for it.’”

“In the end, research is about risk. If there’s no risk, there’s no research. We built this into the model. It’s a little early for me to categorically say it’s a better model, but I certainly can say that it’s a viable model.” He recognizes, however, that some networks will work better with a more traditional, top-down funding model. And if the GRAND model needs some tweaks to make it better, he’s more than ready.

The right management skills

Serving as GRAND’s Scientific Director is in some ways the capstone to Dr. Booth’s accomplished career. “It just seemed to me that I had a lot of skills that had been developed over my career that could be applied to this. It’s also the satisfaction of seeing that the digital media research community is coming together across Canada in a way that it hadn’t before.”

He notes that the needs of a network go far beyond those of a large research project, and managing the interactions between dozens of universities and researchers is qualitatively different from running a smaller project. GRAND, for example, works with researchers at 25 universities, more than most NCEs.

“If you haven’t done anything on a national scale already, you’re in for some surprises. Some of your experience isn’t going to carry over very well.”

Building on GRAND’s momentum

Just three years into the network’s term, Dr. Booth maintains high expectations for GRAND’s future. For example, he would like to further strengthen ties with art and design schools to better parallel the connections he has helped forge between the social sciences and the natural sciences and engineering.

Health has also emerged as a growing component of GRAND’s work, a trend he expects to continue. He cites public education about health issues as an area where digital media can play a strong role. Computer gaming is also increasingly used as a treatment tool, with successes that include motivating patients with cerebral palsy to exercise, or an innovative video gaming experience that teaches children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders to maintain calm, focussed attention.

GRAND has partnered with the NeuroDevNet NCE for these two health initiatives, a collaboration that realizes the potential for synergy between the two NCEs. Dr. Booth cites this a great example of how the NCE program promotes collaboration not just within networks, but across networks.

Canada has pioneered the network model as an effective way to address important research issues, breaking down disciplinary boundaries and overcoming geographical challenges. “Canada is a very large country,” says Dr. Booth. “Most research is incremental, and there’s a tighter and tighter time loop on that. What the networks provide is a way to get better and faster connections between researchers in Canada.”

His advice to anyone considering a leadership role in a network includes encouraging them to take advantage of any “starter” programs offered by granting agencies that fund large collaborative projects or small-scale networks. If they then choose to try to make the jump to a national network, they will have already laid the groundwork. “There’s no possible way you can start putting an NCE together when the competition announcement comes out.”

And once those elements are in place? “Expect to put in more work than you ever thought you could,” he concludes with a smile.

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