Research VP says social-science research should be at core of innovation

(Edmonton) Lorne Babiuk says innovation cannot work effectively without input from researchers in the social sciences and that their contributions are absolutely important. Babiuk, the vice-president (research) at the University of Alberta, made the comments during a panel discussion that examined the relationship between basic and applied research on innovation, held at the U of A Feb. 5.

“We can have the best technology in the world but if we don’t use input from our social-science colleagues to be able to help us understand what society may accept or not, we may have the best product in the world, but we will never get the full benefit of that technology,” said Babiuk.

Recent examples of the ways that the U of A suggest the university concentrates focus on fostering interdisciplinary research, include establishing a new Scholar in Residence for Arts Research in Nanotechnology and supporting an ongoing international exhibition, “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art.” Co-organized by research director of U of A’s Health Law Institute researcher, Tim Caulfield and art and design professor Sean Caulfield, who said the exhibition brought together stem-cell researchers and artists to help advance debate on the issue.

“True innovation requires an interdisciplinary approach. We now have to start looking at the convergence of disciplines, and we need to be able to find ways to fund programs across disciplines,” said Babiuk.

The panel, which included Annette Trimbee, Alberta deputy minister for advanced education and technology; Matthias Kleiner, president of the German research foundation, DFG; David Lynch, dean of the Faculty of Engineering; and Gary Albach, president and CEO of Alberta Innovates, agree that there needs to be fundamental shift in how universities approach research and innovation.

“Basic and applied research are not two poles of an axis, but instead exist in a symbiotic relationship. They work together to focus, direct and redirect the interests of a researcher. We should not forget that universities, and by extension, basic research, has a mission,” Kleiner said.   

Babiuk underscored that point. He explained that true innovation requires a blend between business and academia.

“We don’t want to make every academic a business person, or every business person an academic. But we need to have programs that allow us to be able to understand the languages between these different areas,” he said, adding that having faculty spend a few years working in industry and returning to academia could be one solution.

Lynch suggested that a shift in the thinking on the role of basic and applied research on innovation could be extended further by how researchers think of their work. He says researchers strive for excellence.

“Is the excellence measured by the number of publications, how others see our research work or by an impact on the market, whatever that market is. The answer on all those is yes,” Lynch said. He added successful innovation occurs when a university professor moves back and forth between industry and academia.   

Albach described this movement as the mobility of people and culture. He says universities and industry have different cultures but that collaboration can still happen between the two. He commended the university’s efforts at connecting the cultures. “The U of A bridges those cultures extremely well and has a deep understanding of that. It is a matter of embedding that understanding with some of the partners we have,” Albach said.

Trimbee suggested that funding basic research at the expense of applied research, and then balancing that with the need for research ideas to be commercialized, are issues that are of immediate concern.

“[But] we absolutely get the importance of basic research,” Trimbee said.

Panel moderator, Debra Pozega Osburn, vice-president (university relations), said the meeting provided an opportunity for the U of A to further enhance its relationship with institutions in Germany by allowing participants, which included deans, faculty and students, to comment on international collaboration.

“There are no limits to bold imagination and innovative thinking,” Osburn said.