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The words "research" and "McGill" together generate over 1.2 million results in a Google search -- one indicator of the university's tradition of research achievement, its current successes and its stated objective to become one of the very best public research-intensive universities in the world. That's where acting Vice-Principal (Research) Jacques Hurtubise comes in. Hurtubise oversees research services (including research grants, technology transfer and international research) and research policy at McGill. He recently spoke to the Reporter about the role of his office and the challenges of research and research funding.
In what ways do researchers interact with your office?
Anytime a researcher applies for a grant, for one. Our Research Grants Office takes in the application and checks that it is complete and that the various approvals have been given before sending it on to the agency. Then, if you're doing research with human subjects or animals, there are various ethical issues that have to be addressed by committees and approved. We have a role in supervising those processes. Technology transfer is another common example. If you invent something and you want to develop it, you have to declare your invention according to the university's intellectual property policy (which is actually quite generous compared with other universities). This is handled through the Office of Technology Transfer. If you're involved with international research, you would deal with our Office of International Research, which facilitates, coordinates and promotes international research and development activities at McGill. Also, one aspect of research that is becoming more and more important is communication and we play a role in that as well. Research communication is critical for the university, not just to inform peers but also to let the funding bodies and the general public know about our successes. That's why we're taking a much more proactive approach to communication. We'll be publishing a new McGill research journal -- primarily for external audiences -- which will be coming out twice a year. We also want to improve the lines of communication within the university -- better instructions on our website being one example.
What's your principal objective in all these different activities?
To provide the service for researchers in the most efficient way possible so they can get on with their research and have the resources to develop their program to its maximum potential. McGill has an extraordinary volume and variety of research initiatives, and a very entrepreneurial research culture, with a bottom up approach. Where we could improve is in the level of support we provide these initiatives, and in their coordination when we are dealing with the big ones -- such as Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) proposals -- in short, by being a bit more strategic, without stifling the real energy that is out there.
Are there any particular challenges or issues that are key for your office right now?
Yes. There are a variety of areas where some action has to be taken; for example, we don't do as well as our peers in getting group funding. Putting in some support can often give us major resources. We have started a new special projects office (SURF -- Strategic University Research Funding -- we gave in to acronym temptation) to help us in such initiatives.
The main challenge for SURF for the coming year will be major infrastructure funding. That's mostly through CFI, and it will be critical to present a coherent, well-developed university plan that integrates the various faculty initiatives, select the ones that are going to give us the best chance of success and then provide the support to make sure that the applications are as good as possible. And, when the grants do come in, we have to make sure the funding is well managed and used with optimal effectiveness.
How is McGill doing in terms of research grants?
Quite well. Most of the time (there are all sorts of ways of counting) we rate as Canada's most research-intensive university. Our funding comes from an array of sources: the federal granting councils (the Canadian Institute for Health Research, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), the provincial granting councils, private foundations, industry and government. The volume is enormous: last year, McGill put in 1,700 applications, with 730 grants awarded. However, these awards are multi-year awards so it adds up to a total of about 3,900 active files linked to various research grants. There is a great variety of sources and foundations of various types and they all have their own rules. It's quite a complicated enterprise. It's also a fact of life that many modern research agencies that give money don't just give and forget. They view a research grant as an ongoing process and that entails follow-up, good communication and often some fairly heavy reporting.
What's the best single piece of advice you can give to a McGill researcher applying for a grant?
Read the instructions! Reading the instructions and getting advice are the main things. Every researcher starts with an idea, but the funding agency has a certain number of questions it wants answered in a certain way, so it pays to read those questions very carefully. And don't hesitate to come see us or give us a call. We want to help and that's our job. If we're not helping, let us know. If we are helping, let us know too -- it's a source of encouragement.