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Lessons learned

UNBC representatives, Dr. Rob van Adrichem, VP External Relations, left, and Dr. Gail Fondahl, VP Research.

By Rebecca Cohoe

Recently, a group of senior administrators from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) visited Memorial for a tour of the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development.

While there’s not much to see at the Harris Centre itself, it was the research and partnerships brokered by the centre that caught their attention.

UNBC is currently considering setting up the New North Foundation which will facilitate the connection of communities, industries, and various levels of governments (including First Nations) with researchers at UNBC and beyond. Last year they did a review of several possible models for such a centre, from across Canada and beyond, and the Harris Centre emerged as the most promising model for the new foundation.

“As time goes on, I think there’s a greater demand from the public, and industry, and the communities, that they have greater access to the research that, basically, they’re paying for,” explained Dr. Rob van Adrichem, vice-president, external relations, at UNBC. “I think that the more we can be seen to be anticipatory on that issue, and around public demands for greater inclusion in research, the more successful we’ll be.”

According to Dr. Gail Fondahl, vice-president research at UNBC, she and Dr. van Adrichem were particularly impressed by the sense they got of the centre’s reputation within the university and the greater community.

“There was the idea of independence, and the idea of integrity, the 'honest broker,'” she explained. “I think that it’s great to see that those words are used by the Harris Centre, but they’re also used by a number of people we’ve talked to outside the Harris Centre, about the centre. I think we’ll bring home those values as things to strive for,” she said.

According to Harris Centre Director Dr. Rob Greenwood, the British Columbia group is not the first to find inspiration in the Harris Centre’s unique model for university-community engagement.

“The Harris Centre has shared our approach to policy and development research near and far, from other Canadian universities – ranging from the University of Saskatchewan, to Queens, to UNB - to universities as geographically distant as Bolivia and Australia,” said Dr. Greenwood.

In some cases, that sharing has led to the development of similar organizations in other jurisdictions. Just this fall, Dr. Greenwood was invited to deliver the keynote address at the opening of the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network.

Andy Scott, leader of the New Brunswick Network, agreed that the Harris Centre was a guiding example in developing the network.

“When creating the model for the NB Social Policy Research Network, we looked at similar organizations for direction,” he explained. “While there aren't many, we were particularly inspired by the work of the Harris Centre given the closeness of proximity between our two provinces and the manner in which the centre functions, using academic brainpower to solve some of its province's greatest challenges.

"Good public policy is informed by thoughtful research and the use of readily available data,” Dr. Scott continued. “Particularly because public finances are stretched, we can’t afford to make mistakes. Whether it’s a provincial government or a remote community the work of organizations like the Harris Centre is vital.”

Dr. van Adrichem also believes in the link between academic research, and strong public policy, and the guiding role that a university can play within a jurisdiction: “(UNBC) was created with a mandate to serve the North,” he explained. “What does that mean? It’s not in the legislation. Initially, it evolved to the idea of responsiveness, the idea of 'responding to a critical need.' But I think what’s happening now is that we’re evolving again to an emphasis on responsibility.

“Responsibility implies being a citizen,” he concluded. “It’s a very important word to describe why we’re here.”