Capone: Research push will take commitment

It won’t be an easy climb to the top of the research heap for Western, said John Capone, Western vice-president (research). But it’s something he feels the university needs to do.

“No question, a university’s reputation on the global stage mainly relates to research activity, output and intensity,” Capone told a packed Great Hall at the Jan. 24 Leaders’ Forum. “It is the magnet to attract the best students, faculty and staff.

“We want to be in that game as intensively as we can.”

And right now, Capone doesn’t see Western as a starter when it comes to the game of research. With just over $230 million in total research funding in 2011-12, Western ranks consistently No. 9 or No. 10 among Canadian universities. While the university is on the ‘research team,’ it finds itself consistently riding the bench.

With the lofty goal of becoming No. 5 in the country in terms of research dollars, it would mean millions more in funding support funnelled to the university.

“We want to be No. 5 in Canada just in research funding alone. We will need to double it up, and to do that is about $100 million. We can maybe do it, but it’s important that we do do it,” Capone said. “So, how do we actually trigger those goals and make things happen – and not in an incremental way, but in a bold big way? We want to strive for global leadership, at least in our areas of strength. Those areas will permeate and elevate everything else that we do.”

The signature research areas determined by the university include neuroscience, imaging, materials, wind, sustainability, planetary science, philosophy of science and musculoskeletal health.

“We’re going to focus on our strengths, but, of course, that is not an exclusionary thing and it doesn’t mean other areas aren’t important to the university,” Capone said. “But you need to focus on key areas where you can make a big difference.”

Amit Chakma, Western president, believes the university has what it takes. But it’s now time to start leap-frogging fellow institutions.

“We have missed a great opportunity. Over the last decade, when our research funding across the system nearly doubled, we have not been able to capture the momentum others have,” Chakma said at the forum. He noted schools such as Calgary and Ottawa who, 10-15 years ago, were below Western in terms of research funding, are today ahead.

“And it’s more than just dollar values. You can see the impact in many other ways,” the president said. “There is enough evidence for me to say they are our competition. Impact is probably even more important than dollars. If you can make the impact, the dollars will follow.”

Capone, who started the top research post on Oct. 1, earned a BSc in Biochemistry from Western in 1978 and a PhD in Biochemistry from McMaster in 1983. The Leaders’ Forum marked his first opportunity to address his area to the larger university community.

Getting to that impact desired by the president will mean a focused approach to the university’s investments, Capone added, not only in established areas, but also in emerging ones where Western needs to be ahead of the curve.

“Part of that will be clustering in our areas of strength, a willingness to aggressively recruit, not necessarily at the entry/junior level, but at the mid/senior level, and not just individuals, but groups. We need to actively pursue excellence,” Capone said.

He added a focus on research intensity and impact – with the same determination as Western has on ‘student experience’ for past 15 years – will begin to push Western closer to where it wants to be. Developing an action plan and investing in pathways that foster a strategic focus on research within faculties and administrative units can be a huge start.

Capone said offering additional support mechanisms to help early- and mid-career researchers take the ‘next step’ is important and the university needs to remain flexible, diversify and identify new areas of funding, at least in the sciences.

“The landscape of funding is changing significantly,” he said. “The individual initiated grant is a component that is there and still important, but we do have to offer support mechanism for people to get into the game and keep them in the game.”

Changes to internal programs, including funding/indirect costs allocations, are needed to better align with strategic directions, along with the need to make strategic hires of early- and mid-career, rising stars that are hungry to establish themselves.

Capone said Western has a tremendous amount of work ahead to get where they want, and need, to be.

“Going ahead, we want to be counted among the best in Canada,” he said. “We need to integrate and organize our research structures differently, we need to develop clusters of strength, and we need to establish a culture of convergent research activity. And we need to have whole (Western) community around it.”