‘Maturity,’ ‘readiness’ led to cluster designation

Tyler Gray // Special to Western News

Health Sciences professor Trevor Birmingham, left, Physiology and Pharmacology professor Jeff Dixon, middle, and Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor David Holdsworth are three of more than 70 researchers across five faculties in the recently announced Cluster of Research Excellence in Musculoskeletal Health. This is the university’s second Cluster of Research Excellence, a top designation reserved only for collaborative areas where “innovation and world-class research thrive.”

From a pool of interesting and innovative ideas, one group of Western researchers – and their readiness for the “next level” of research collaboration – stood out for reviewers.

Announced Monday, Musculoskeletal Health has been named the university’s second Cluster of Research Excellence. The cluster will be supported by a $5-million funding commitment from the university over five years.

“We were looking for demonstrated excellence, excellence that had to be multidisciplinary and had to have evidence of outputs,” said Janice Deakin, Western provost and vice-president (academic). “With Musculoskeletal Health, we’re starting at the top, working with a group who is already a demonstrably excellent and internationally recognized multidisciplinary area.

“This is a start of a journey for Western to try and provide some additional institutional support to help this group get to the next level.”

The cluster designation decision followed a competitive internal process adjudicated by a panel that included members of the University Research Board and an external peer review. Led by Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor David Holdsworth, the Musculoskeletal Health team won the competition by assembling a long-term strategy building upon institutional strengths that cross over several faculties and disciplinary boundaries.

Proposals for clusters were submitted following consultation with deans and Research Western. Five projects were requested to submit full applications including:

Deakin said Musculoskeletal Health stood out for judges because it had a track record of collaboration working with ideas with the potential to produce social and economic benefits on a local, national and international scale.

“While each had interesting ideas, really interesting proposals, they were not at the level of maturity in terms of the conditions we set to be awarded a cluster,” she continued. “While Western is choosing to support only one new cluster at this time, this process has highlighted other important areas of study that demonstrate high potential for further development.

“Some, by their own admission, are not where Musculoskeletal Health is today. But it brought people together to talk about it. Our job is to harness that and help those researchers define and move parts of their proposals forward using all the tools at our disposal.”

As Musculoskeletal Health researchers can attest, success was not overnight achievement.

The group organized under the university’s Interdisciplinary Development Initiative (IDI), as well as was in contention when the university sought to land, although eventually unsuccessfully, a second Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC). Musculoskeletal Health’s efforts did not make the final cut for the CERC submission, but in that failure grew the foundation of its later success.

“At the time, we didn’t see enough evidence of outputs in terms of collaborations,” Deakin said. “I remember delivering the message as acting vice-president (research) at the time. I told them, ‘You say you’re a team, and I see that you are working as a team, but you don’t have the outputs to support that. There are not enough multi-authored, tier-one journal publications to get you there.’

“That informed their view of the world when it came time for their cluster proposal. That contributed tremendously to its readiness.”

Deakin warned against thinking of this recent competition in terms of “winners and losers.”

“We had a competition, we set the criteria and only one met – exceeded even – those criteria,” she said. “We had some proposals that were quite nascent in the areas they wanted to work in. We need to find ways to support them, and harness their energy, excellence and ideas those people have. This process brought people from across campus to talk together. In some ways, it achieved some of our objectives.

“Our challenge now is to support that energy outside the cluster initiative.”

No new cluster announcements are expected in the near future. Instead, the university will focus its efforts on moving along its first two clusters, as well as nurturing ideas not as far along as Musculoskeletal Health.

“There is tremendous energy and effort in these proposals, writ large, and I expect deans will comment on the components of those other clusters, and how they might want to support them using other tools we have at hand to move them along,” Deakin said. “Our objective is to have more world-class, interdisciplinary areas at this institution. We’ll navigate a pathway of assistance to move them along the same way Musculoskeletal Health moved from an IDI through external funding by individual researchers to, ultimately, a place that made them successful.”

Part of that will include creative thinking around research chairs. Modeled after the Canada Research Chairs program, and in direct support of cluster development, the Western Research Chairs program looks to recruit of up to 10 mid- to senior-level researchers to build capacity, enhance collaborative and interdisciplinary research and produce research results with global implications.

Currently, each cluster may propose up to three Western Research Chairs. However, while the chair program is currently linked to clusters, Deakin said that doesn’t mean it will be so going forward.

“We’ll be talking about whether we can create these chairs as an appointment independent of the clusters. In other words, these clusters will get them, but would we consider augmenting research areas that meet the bar in terms of international excellence with Western Research Chairs? Possibly. I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’s a good program, and we need to think about how to deploy that program in terms of research excellence.”

Deakin assured that, despite no new clusters on the horizon, funding will remain in place and available to support research excellence

“It is not going away,” she said. “We will deploy it in support of multi- and interdisciplinary areas of research that have achieved a world-class reputation.”