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Inclusive Impact: A refreshed strategic direction for Dalhousie research and innovation

Posted by Andrew Riley on November 28, 2023 in Research
Dalhousie’s Strategic Research Clusters reflect broad areas of research strength across the university.
Dalhousie’s Strategic Research Clusters reflect broad areas of research strength across the university.

Dalhousie’s vice president of research and innovation presented a refreshed strategic direction to Dalhousie Senate on Monday (Nov. 29) that will help guide the next five years of research and innovation at the university.

Dr. Alice Aiken says the direction, titled Inclusive Impact, builds on the collective momentum of the university’s research community toward an increasingly bright future.

“We’ve achieved some significant milestones, making transformative discoveries, increasing our research productivity, boosting commercialization, and building partnerships locally, nationally around the world,” she says. “It has been a massive community effort, so it made perfect sense to go back to the research community to take stock of what we achieved and determine how best to build toward the future.”

A complement to the goals and actions defined in Dalhousie’s Third Century Promise Strategic Plan (2021 to 2026), Inclusive Impact reflects the research community’s principles and objectives, gleaned through a period of extensive engagement this past summer and fall.

A collective approach

The process of drafting the new strategic direction included a survey that went to faculty and staff on the state of the research and innovation enterprise that drew significant response from across the university. This was supplemented by one-on-one interviews with key leaders, and townhalls that gathered members of the research community to discuss the evolution of each of Dalhousie’s strategic research clusters.

“We really wanted to dig in with our colleagues to arrive at a direction they felt represented their work, needs and aspirations,” says Dr. Aiken. “Ultimately, we heard that we’re on the right path but could do more to quantify and demonstrate our impact, more fully embrace rapid developments in digital technology, and improve inclusivity, both within and outside of our research community.”

Building with momentum

Over the past five years, external research funding at Dalhousie has grown 37 per cent to $210 million in fiscal 2022-23, an important metric indicating researchers’ success initiating programs and projects valued for their impact by government and other funders. Journal publications have risen by 25 per cent since 2016-18, and citations have gone up 75 per cent in the same period, reflecting the expanding influence of the university’s thought leadership.

This is an upward trajectory that will continue with additional focus and resources added to support Dal’s scholars in their work.

“We have fabulous researchers. We just need to ensure efficient processes are in place to help them obtain the research funding and infrastructure they need to pursue their goals,” says Dr. Aiken. This extends to a continued expansion of global partnerships and a strategy to increase the number of PhD students who play an integral role in the research enterprise.

Demonstrating impact

With increasing funding and citations, it can be expected that Dalhousie researchers are making discoveries that have a positive impact in lives locally, nationally and around the globe. But exactly how this impact is being felt is something Dr. Aiken says the university wants to better capture and articulate.

“We see ourselves very much focused on solving problems in the world,” says Dr. Aiken. “But who exactly is our work impacting and how? Beyond the traditional academic metrics, I really see Dalhousie playing a leadership role in Canada in articulating what our research excellence means, and truly understanding the impact of the work we're leading.”

A new digital focus

Dalhousie’s Strategic Research Clusters, the university’s key areas of strength, had their names and focus areas reviewed to ensure they continue to accurately represent the research being pursued across the university. The clusters include Sustainable Ocean; Healthy People, Communities, and Populations; Climate Tech and Clean Energy; Culture and Society; and Sustainable Food Systems.

A new cluster focused on AI and Digital Innovation was added, reflecting the rapid growth of research in the area at the university and its impact across every field of study, 

“Computer science and data-driven research has grown tremendously, as a field in itself and as a key input across all of our research clusters in areas like precision farming, digital health, and persuasive technologies,” says Dr. Aiken. “And let's be honest, if you're not focused on AI, you're not thinking about the future.”

Inclusive research excellence

Another key area of focus that rose to the top among Dalhousie’s research community is a need to increase inclusivity. This includes opening up the research enterprise by inviting greater levels of community partnership and expanding the way research excellence is valued at the university.

While Dr. Aiken says Dalhousie needs to have a more inclusive view, she is also careful to note that it won’t replace traditional ways of defining academic merit. “Just because we're going to look at new ways of talking about research excellence, doesn't mean we can't continue to value traditional methods too. It's not finite, it’s more inclusive.”

A definition for inclusive research excellence that works for the university community is not going to come at the flip of a switch. It will require ongoing community consultation and support to get it right. Over the next five years, the community will engage in discussions to arrive at an understanding of what inclusive research excellence means and how the university can live and practice it.