Kelowna Daily Courier: Mitacs bridging town-to-gown gap in B.C.

When B.C. established its universities they were generally located some distance from urban centres.

UBC, for example, was separated from downtown Vancouver by the University Endowment Lands and Simon Fraser was built on the top of Burnaby Mountain.

Perhaps there was fear academia might be corrupted by urban centres, but I suspect there was also fear academics might have a subversive impact on the rough and tumble culture of our province during a large part of the 20th century.

There has been a cost to this isolation. For those not in academia, there was little awareness of the vast store of knowledge and analytic power lodged in the universities’ faculties. For the academics, there was little recognition their knowledge could be used to work on solving a host of challenges faced by business and other sectors including not-for-profits, governments and neighbourhood groups while, at the same time, giving graduate students hands-on research experience. 

The question was how to bridge this gulf. One answer was Mitacs, a not-for-profit founded in 1999. The National Centre of Excellence, as it was originally called, was the brain-child of four mathematicians. Its first leader was Arvind Gupta, an academic and entrepreneur named president of UBC in 2014. 

In 2011, Mitacs split into two organizations. One retained a focus on using math as a foundation for partnerships. The other organization operated four programs to apply broader research talent to the challenges of business, government and not-for-profits and provide academics with experience outside the university walls: 

1. Mitacs Accelerate offers internships with industry for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows across all academic disciplines.

2. Mitacs Elevate is a two-year program providing post-doctoral fellows with professional and leadership development training while leading long-term research projects with a partner organization.

3. Mitacs Globalink supports two-way research collaboration between Canada and international research partners.

4. Mitacs Step provides skills training workshops for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

In just 15 years, Mitacs has supported more than 10,000 research internships, trained more than 19,000 students and postdoctoral career-skills participants and supported more than 1,300 international research collaborations. They have achieved this high volume of activity through 25 offices across the country where business development personnel in each office are charged with meeting members of the community and looking for opportunities to form partnerships.

Partnerships to date have led to new methods to identify abnormal cardiac rhythms, found methods for minimizing the cost and maximizing the effectiveness of control measures for SARS, improved the reality of animated movies, enhanced wave power electricity generation, helped boost apple yields in Nova Scotia, and scored breakthroughs in areas as diverse as estimating roofing costs and telemetry.

In part of an initiative to integrate the university into the community more effectively, Deborah Buszard, deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan, encouraged Mitacs to establish an office here in the Valley. The Business Development Officer, Jennifer Tedman-Jones, (250-870-1514), is searching for projects. Given the diversity of activity in the Valley and throughout the Interior, there should be a strong demand for her services. While not every potential project will lead to a partnership, those that do will find it a very worthwhile experience.

In its relatively short history, Mitacs has helped to bridge the gap between town and gown. It has added immensely to Canada’s highly-skilled work force and built strong relationships between formerly isolated elements in our national fabric. It has demonstrated academically-trained researchers can add real value to our economy and society.

If this type of co-operative initiative were more common in Canada, there would be fewer silos of special interests at war with each other and more advances in all areas of endeavour.

By: David Bond