Sunday, 30 April 2017

Alberta is Realizing the Value from Two Long-range Research Investments

In 2000, the Government of Alberta created Alberta Ingenuity, an organization to stimulate research in science and engineering (today it is called Alberta Innovates). One of their first initiatives was to create a program to fund research centers, areas where there was critical mass of world-class expertise in Alberta. In 2002, they announced their first two centers – in glycomics (studying the affects of sugar on the body’s chemistry) and machine learning (turning data into knowledge). These two centers, both housed in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, continue to this day under the names of the Alberta Glycomics Centre (AGC, and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii,

From 2002 to the present – 15 years – the Government of Alberta has continued to invest in both centers. This has happened despite many vicissitudes, including difficult financial times and changes in political direction.  This type of long-term support is unusual in academia. Far more common is one-time term-limited funding. Alberta Ingenuity/Innovates had faith in the quality of the people involved, and in the progress the centers were making towards achieving important new results and then turning this new technology into economic value.

Now in 2017 we can take stock of what has been achieved. AGC researchers have numerous patents, technology licensing agreements, and local spinoff companies. Further, AGC was the catalyst that united all academic glycomics research in Canada into a national organization, GlycoNet. GlycoNet is funded by Ottawa at roughly the $5M per year level, excluding substantial funding from numerous provinces and companies. The University of Alberta leads this National Centre of Excellence and much of the money stays in Alberta. We are proud of the truly world-class stature that this group has.

Amii has been doing groundbreaking research for years. For over 25 years, the University of Alberta has ranked 2nd or 3rd in the world in artificial intelligence (AI) research and its prominent sub-area of machine learning (ML). In the past year AI has suddenly become “hot”. The global demand for AI/ML experts is huge. In their recent budget, Ottawa decided to create a national AI initiative, of which $25M is now coming to the University of Alberta to grow Amii. Further major Canadian and international companies are lined up to partner with Amii. In January the Royal Bank announced they are setting up a research office in Edmonton. Soon you will hear more announcements of major international companies doing the same. The economic impact for Edmonton will be huge, including attracting companies to town, retaining superb scientists in Edmonton, and creating new spinoff companies. The Government wants to diversity the economy. Amii’s world-class stature is going to help achieve that goal.

This is a perfect example of the importance of long-term fundamental research. All too often, we see governments investing in “get payback quick” schemes that look good in the short-term (i.e., in time for the next election) but do not necessarily have long-term impact. Both AGC and Amii started out doing fundamental (“basic”) research, but now we are seeing the benefits of this foundational work. By applying these ideas to solve industrial applications (“applied” research) and creating new products, Albertans will now realize a major economic return from the Government’s investment.

It is important to give credit where credit is due. As academics we sometimes are guilty of taking research funding for granted and not being suitably appreciative of the faith that the funders are putting in our ability to deliver value. On behalf of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, I want to express my deepest heart-felt thank you to the Government of Alberta for their vision, initiative, and stick-with-it-ness – for believing in the AGC and Amii through thick and thin. In my 33 years of academic experience, this kind of investment is the exception. I am delighted that the AGC and Amii research programs are realizing the potential seen in 2002 and delivering major returns to the Alberta taxpayer.

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