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NSERC on hunt to help smaller firms do research

Suzanne Fortier, head of a $1.1-billion-a-year federal agency that finances university research, is looking for businesses – lots of them.

Dr. Fortier, appointed this week to a second term as president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), has heard all the griping about how good ideas are too often trapped in Canadian laboratories.

By the end of her next term, she aims to double the number of companies involved in NSERC's research partnerships with universities – to 3,000 from more than 1,500 now.

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Dr. Fortier, a 61-year-old chemist and computer scientist, said it's time to stop whining about Canada's relatively poor record of innovation and do something about the problem.

"Enough reports. We've seen enough," she said in an interview. "At the end of the day, we all agree that Canada needs to up its game in innovation."

NSERC is spending more than $300-million a year on various partnerships between businesses and research institutions. Businesses match that with another roughly $140-million in spending of their own.

"It's not a one-way road," she said. "It's really the interaction between the two. We're trying to bring research to the real world."

A lot of the money goes to Canada's largest companies, such as Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. and Research In Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ont.

NSERC is increasingly reaching out to smaller and mid-sized companies, which Dr. Fortier said have less time and resources to devote to research.

"The biggest hurdle is time, and creating partnerships takes time," she said. "Industry says we have no time to lose and no money to waste."

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To help address that problem, the agency recently launched a $10-million-a-year program to link researchers and companies on targeted short-term projects. The early feedback from a recent evaluation has been positive and NSERC is looking to expand the initiative.

The challenge for NSERC is that the needs of companies are often vastly different, according to Dr. Fortier. Large multinationals, such as RIM, are more interested in getting government to help it "see the future" than developing new products.

"RIM doesn't want help on near-term research," she explained. "They do that themselves. What they want to see is 10 years from now."

She said NSERC will also have to do a better job of focusing its limited funds in areas where Canada has the potential to be a global leader, such as the Arctic, water, energy, manufacturing and quantum computing.

Dr. Fortier said she isn't particularly worried about an ongoing review of Ottawa's R&D spending, adding: "I know what we have to do."

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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