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Research Administration Skills Are Needed More Than Ever in CleanTech

Sunday, March 26, 2023 4:05:00 PM

Author(s): Pierce Maguire, Ph.D., Technology Specialist and Manager of Marketing at Saltworks Technologies

As the world moves towards a clean energy economy and government initiatives push for sustainability, private clean technology companies are experiencing a lot of change. This shift has created a surge in demand for people outside of academic institutions possessing the skills needed to navigate a new technology and financial landscape. In this blog post, I want to explore why I think research administration skills are increasingly vital in non-academic settings and why we need more individuals with these skills and training in the private sector in addition to academia.

I’ll warn first that my experience may not be too typical of CARA members: it has been almost four years since I left the academic world and ventured into a new career in the Canadian clean technology sector; and I did very limited administration as a researcher in Ireland (read: my PI mercifully did all the hard work, and it was a very different funding landscape).

My new and first role outside academia wasn’t initially expected to involve a lot of work on grants, it was focused on writing technical(-ish) content for marketing and communication purposes. Coming from research, I was captivated by ostensibly mundane concepts that to my fresh eyes represented a fresh and interesting perspective. For instance, I think just about everyone should spend a few minutes learning what technology readiness levels (TRLs) are if they don’t know already1.

Learning and communicating to customers all of the commercialization know-how and industry-specific knowledge was extremely interesting and helped me build on prior experience as a science communicator. However, as time passed, I found myself working on securing funding for a mixture of research and development projects and business scale-up initiatives, at first because of the influx of government initiatives to support businesses through the economic shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but continuing as more incentives for commercializing clean technologies were introduced.

Cleantech needs to scale, rapidly.

It has been very personally fulfilling to work for a growing cleantech company that is dedicated to using technology to achieve positive impacts on the world. I've had great opportunities to learn from cross-disciplinary experts in engineering solutions for industrial water and lithium. That being said, when something like the latest IPCC report drops, it sharply reminds me of the scale of what still needs to be done in researching, developing, commercializing, and manufacturing the solutions that will electrify our energy economy, clean our air and water, and remediate our land.

It’s well-accepted that the rollout of clean technologies is nowhere near where it needs to be. According to Bloomberg in 2022, “To reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5C, investment in renewable energy sources needs to surpass finance flows to fossil fuels by a factor of four over the next decade”. It is currently still less than one-to-one2.  

There is more government support for cleantech than ever

Thankfully, the Government of Canada seems to be getting this and has identified the need for investments in researching, commercializing, and manufacturing clean tech. Not only is there a wealth of agencies and funding sources out there for growing cleantech companies, but they are responsive, supportive, and constantly improving. As one example, the budget 2017 measures made significant contributions to clean tech funding3. For another, I think that the supply chain shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the rising fear of other geopolitical tensions, have played no small part in stimulating the Canadian Government’s Critical Minerals Strategy4,5.

Of particular note, there has been a lot of new funding in recent years for the protection of intellectual property (IP) owned by Canadian companies. Spending on IP is now eligible for partial (50%) reimbursement under the Trade Commission’s CanExport SME program and the Innovation Asset Collective not-for-profit has received an increase in government funding for its work assisting small and medium cleantech enterprises with their IP needs 6,7.

Very broadly speaking, the approach of supporting public and private research, as well as subsidizing and incentivizing scaling up and rolling out clean technologies seems to be working. The most recent IPCC report’s Summary for Policymakers noted that "From 2010–2019 there have been sustained decreases in the unit costs of solar energy (85%), wind energy (55%), and lithium ion batteries (85%), and large increases in their deployment, e.g., >10x for solar and >100x for electric vehicles (EVs), varying widely across regions. The mix of policy instruments that reduced costs and stimulated adoption includes public R&D, funding for demonstration and pilot projects, and demand pull instruments such as deployment subsidies to attain scale."8

 Cleantech needs the skills of research administrators

The strategy of subsidies, incentives and other supports seems to be working (if belatedly) and there is therefore more government money available to accelerate clean technologies. Moreover, between increasing interest rates and the spectre of a banking crisis—private financing is in…an interesting place right now9.

To turn it around and look at it from the government’s perspective, there is also a serious need for reputable, organized, and promising technology companies to partner with, so that money is used and used well. Policymakers and civil servants get a really hard time if they get it wrong (google “Solyndra” and “Obama Administration”). Companies that want to compete for government investment need to know that and strategize around it.

To put it plainly, if you run a small or medium-sized cleantech company in Canada right now, it is probably irresponsible not to explore government support for at least cleantech research expenditures, and perhaps more. You can steal a march on your competitors by writing excellent proposals, for projects that are in keeping with each program’s mandate; maintaining good relationships with your government counterparts; being organized and consistent with periodic reports; and having good accounting and financial administration systems in place. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a job for someone with the skillset of a research administrator!

For me, as funding for research and business scale-up was becoming more important in my career and was of interest to me generally, I went looking for ways to formally educate myself. I found that I was drawn inexorably to the growing and promising field of research administration because, despite the focus on academic awards and institutions, it was the one that most comprehensively covered the skills that I felt I needed to focus on improving, namely: financial administration, project management, proposal development, contracts, and reporting. That, as you can guess, is what led me to CARA, the program at Mohawk College, and of course writing this blog.

Conclusion: There should be many people in cleantech looking for the know-how that research administrators can offer

Having people with significant experience and skills in writing grant proposals, submitting monthly reports, performing project financial administration and so on, should be a major part of the growth strategy of many companies. Finding them outside of academia may be a challenge.

This view is a snapshot from my limited experience but I hope that where this blog lacks insight, it can make up for it by highlighting a possible opportunity for more dialogue between research administrators and those who work in the private sector but need many of the same skills.




Tags: cleantech, education, industrial research, commercialization, pilots