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Sandra Crocker doesn't want to hear your commuter horror stories. Every week since taking over the newly minted position of Assistant Vice-Principal (Research Operations) on Nov. 1, Crocker has been schlepping in from her home in Kingston. ("Where I'm getting my last child through high school.") Of course, travel doesn't seem to faze her. Born in Labrador, she grew up in a small mining community in the Northern Yukon before heading to Queen's for university. Crocker comes down the 401 with a wealth of experience as a top research administrator. A member of the International Society for Research Administration, she is also President of the Canadian Association of University Research Administrators and served most recently as Associate Vice-Principal (Research) in the Office of the Vice-Principal Research at Queen's. Crocker recently spoke to the McGill Reporter about her new job and the state of research funding in Canada.
It is a new position, so we are defining it as we go along. But we're really here to try and provide the best possible research environment for our faculty members, whether that is through facilities, support services, project development – whatever is needed. Initially, I will be reviewing all the support systems we have for research on campus. We will try to optimize the incredible human resources we already have and then look at best practices for how we can organize ourselves so that we have the right configuration in place to support our researchers.
Our office is not that large, but the functions are important. There is nearly $400 million in research funding that is administered over campus. So it is a large portfolio.
Most of our faculty members do a lot of their own proposal writing when they are applying to the standard agencies that they understand very well. Our office can provide real value when it comes to larger-scale, multi-faculty or multi-institutional initiatives and in making sure we address all of the criteria in addition to the scientific criteria.
Although the science always has to be written by the researcher, we can bring in specialists to help with some of the science writing – there's a whole new industry of grant writing now. This expertise has only blossomed in the last 10 years, since a lot of re-investment is being made, particularly from federal sources, in research.
It really is about interpreting the criteria and then making sure you meet them. The research program could be excellent but it could be only one of five criteria that is being evaluated. We can help with the other four. This particular federal government is focusing on projects that reflect its science and technology strategy, including those that benefit Canada and those that involve the training of highly qualified personnel. These are the other criteria that won't see a project funded on its own but often can play a role in projects that don't receive funding. Of course, it all starts with the science and at McGill, typically, the science is top notch.
Yes, part of our portfolio is to put forward nominations on behalf of the institution for national and international prizes. It's funny, because writing a prize nomination, especially for yourself, is not something that many people are comfortable doing. It is kind of like being a reporter in that you gather information and translate it into a document lauding accomplishments that many of our researchers would be too modest to write themselves.
We're looking to set up an electronic system so that applications can be forwarded electronically and approved electronically. This will save a lot of time for faculty members, research assistants and grad students who spend a lot of time walking from place to place just to get signatures.
We also want to expand research development activities by developing teams of people to work closely with the faculties. The faculties, the deans and associate deans know best what they need in terms of support systems. It is a question of taking advantage of the experience we have.
I am always open to listening to faculty to see where there may be some gaps, where there are administrative processes that may be problematic, and what we can do to streamline people's time.
Actually, we compare very well. In terms of percentage of public investment in research and development, we're actually No.1 in the G8 countries. In terms of private investment in R&D, however, we're much, much lower and that's a real issue. Both the federal and provincial governments are focusing their science and technology strategies on trying to get industry much more engaged in supporting university based research.
We actually have one of the most robust regimes for scientific and development tax credits. So they are trying to put in place the instruments to encourage industry to invest. Part of the problem with Canada is that it is really kind of a branch plant mentality – a lot of the head offices aren't in Canada. So when I am working with some large corporations, a lot of the decision-making takes place somewhere else. We might be very far along in getting an investment in a research project and then we'll find out the head office wants to invest the money more locally.
Because we're so aligned with public investment, the priorities of the current governments often dictate where investments are targeted. We certainly saw that in the last federal budget where they did increase competitive funding, but in very specific areas. Specifically they are aiming investments at information technology, the health sector, natural resources and the environment.
Now of course you don't want to be in a position where you are just responding to the government's often short-term priorities, so we're trying to balance that by developing our own strategic plans for longer term investment in areas of research strength.
My interest is broadly in enquiry in any shape and form; my satisfaction comes from seeing others be successful with their research.
It goes way back to my childhood, I guess. My father was a coal miner who was always dreaming up one scheme or another. At one point, he attempted an inland fish farm and at another time started a very successful commercial greenhouse – both while working 12 to 18-hour shifts. Each grand scheme came with hours of research (pre Internet). It is the process that I am particularly interested in – conducting the research in order to be able to start or create something new and then seeing it through to fruition, whether technology development or new knowledge generation.
I was born in Labrador, but I spent most of my childhood in the Northern Yukon in a small town about 250 miles north of Whitehorse. If you walk for about 30 minutes you cross the tree line. When we moved there, there were 210 people: 200 men and 10 women. When we left, there were 1,200 and at its peak there were about 3,500. I saw the whole boom and bust cycle so common in mining towns. I stayed there until I graduated from high school as part of a graduating class of six. It was the town's first graduating class because it was the first time they had a class go all the way to Grade 12.