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In conversation with new NCE Associate Vice-President André Isabelle

André Isabelle

André Isabelle began as the NCE’s new Associate Vice-President on January 2, 2013, following a rigorous national search. A biology graduate from the University of Ottawa, Mr. Isabelle spent more than 25 years working in various roles with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Most recently he served as Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Division of NSERC’s Research Partnerships Programs. His extensive experience with public-private sector partnerships includes serving as the Director responsible for the NCE program during the late 1990s, and leading a number of inter-agency and inter-departmental collaborative initiatives.

“I loved working with the community,” he says of his former roles with NSERC. “In my new role this will continue but with a fascinating expansion in the scope of research and partner communities.” When Mr. Isabelle began at NSERC, partnership programs were in their infancy. We asked him to share his thoughts on his new role and the evolution of collaborative research.

Q: How has the approach to partnerships changed since you began working in this area?

I would say that the vision and the model are still very robust. It’s as simple as having great talent and skillsets in the universities and in the young people that we’re training. We have access to wonderful equipment and facilities. How can we turn that to the advantage of the Canadian economy and society in terms of their innovation needs?

However, the specific mechanisms have certainly evolved. Whether you’re doing small project grants, all the way to a larger scale network grant, to internships in industry, it’s important to have a broad base of mechanisms. We have quite a bit more sophistication and choice in our programming and ability to respond to the particular demands and needs. There is also a healthy mix of top-down programming, where government sets the thematic priorities, and bottom up where researchers and their partners bring their ideas and needs forward.

Q: How has the NCE evolved since you served as its director?

The complexity has grown fourfold if you count the number of program offerings.

I believe the programs have to take a fairly open and flexible approach that can nimbly adapt to the different needs of the different sectors of the economy and facets of society. It’s a challenge administratively, but on the other hand the flexibility can afford you so much more ability to experiment and try different things in different contexts. For example, what works in the oil and gas sector will very likely not work in biomedical technologies because of the different time scales of the way research proceeds and how it’s picked up by the private sector.

Q: What value does the interdisciplinary nature of the NCE programs add?

Talk about a wonderful program feature that allows all three granting agencies plus Industry Canada and Health Canada to be involved in something that none of us can accomplish individually. The opportunity for that cross-fertilization between those different segments is fairly unique to these programs. It’s rare the research issues that I see that don’t involve all sorts of social questions and choices or economic issues or business issues. It’s the combination of these challenges along with the scientific and technological challenges that provides a really rich breeding ground for opportunities for networks and centres to form and to make some really good headway. It’s a much more inclusive and sustainable approach to tackling serious business and societal challenges.

Q: What does it take to be a successful network or centre?

Having the idea and a vision is just the starting point. Having the team and the plan that can cohesively deliver on the vision, now that’s more difficult to pull together. Strong leadership and sound governance are also key to success. And the strong engagement throughout of the end user partners is essential.

Q: How do you foresee NCE programs evolving in the future?

At the moment I’m like a sponge absorbing information and making new contacts. It’s good to reflect upon the experiences as they occur and as we see things evolving and look to see if adjustments are necessary.

At the annual meeting we’ll be taking more of an internal focus, less outwardly showcasing the programs but instead focusing on the networks and centres. How do they increase their ability to deliver on the promise? How do we ensure that the learning of new networks occurs faster based on the experience of the previous networks? How do we better foster interdisciplinary interactions within a network to achieve higher performing research outcomes sooner? How do we ensure that the partners are ready and engaged from the outset, conceptualizing centres, conceptualizing the research questions that confront them in the private and public sectors? How can we further enrich the student experience as we go along, and enable them to hit the ground running when they enter the workforce?

All of that is a continual process of examining, learning and improving.

If the programs are going to continue to be strong and vibrant we have to make sure that all parties feel a part of them. Peer review will decide at the end of the day what are the best investments in the different competitions. But up until that point of selecting the projects every effort should be made that all parties involved in the programs have free and open access and are able to challenge the programs with their ideas and with their plans for solutions to the challenges in business and in public policy.

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