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File Under "Highly Qualified"

July 9, 2010

By Jim Oldfield

They garner less media attention and public recognition than scientists, but they are essential to the daily function of research laboratories. Moreover, the provincial and federal governments increasingly see them as a key component of economic growth.

They are, in human resources parlance, "highly qualified personnel" (HQP). And Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) has lots of them.

In medical research, HQP are research engineers, physicists, research associates, computer programmers, statisticians and laboratory technicians, among others. They work in all branches of science—from biology and physics, to translational research on drugs and devices, to population-based studies of clinical treatments.

Dr. Graham Wright, director of the Schulich Heart Research Program at SRI, is the principal investigator of a government-and industry-backed partnership called the Imaging for Cardiovascular Therapeutics (ICT) consortium, which employs dozens of HQP and will also train about 170 students over its five-year term.

"The knowledge and skills of HQP are critical to developing the imaging technologies that will help us realize the potential of emerging therapies for cardiovascular disease," says Wright, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto.

The main aim of the ICT consortium is to reduce the social and economic burden of heart disease, which accounts for one-third of all deaths in Canada and has added $7 billion a year to direct health care costs for the last decade.

The Ontario government granted one-third of the project's $43-million budget through its Ontario Research Fund-Research Excellence (ORF-RE) program; some of the money was for the purchase of equipment, but almost three-quarters was to retain and recruit a diverse pool of HQP.

"The mixture of hospital-based researchers, clinicians and industrial personnel will provide the right environment for the success of this clinically focused research, and will attract new personnel seeking exposure to highly qualified multidisciplinary teams, leading-edge technology and academic-industrial partnerships," says Wright.

A Government Priority

It is precisely those partnerships that the province is trying to encourage through the ORF-RE and similar programs, to lure skilled workers and students from outside the province and to foster commercialization—the movement of research discoveries from the lab to the marketplace to the clinic—within it.

A commitment to training HQP was also a factor in the success of SRI’s proposal to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to form the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics. The research institute was awarded $75 million toward the building and operating of the centre.

"As it relates to hiring HQP, Ontario's Ministry of Research and Innovation [MRI, the sponsor of the ORF-RE program] and the CFI look for a measurable, direct impact from a research proposal," says Kevin Hamilton, director of strategic research programs at SRI who oversees institutional-level large-scale research proposals.

One objective of these programs, says Hamilton, is not just feeding the academic system by training students and moving them into universities, but also training and pushing them out to companies that put money into the programs—skilled staff as a return-on-investment. "For governments, that's a great outcome: you train people in world-leading technologies, and those people end up in industries that are making money for the province and the country."

Writing detailed estimates on HQP hiring for major government funding proposals is required. And, says Hamilton, it can be difficult, owing to changes in technology, availability of skilled and trainable staff, and variability of research results. But, he says, after scientific excellence, it's important to a successful application—as is showing how the project's HQP will give Ontario and Canada an advantage economically and scientifically. "The future lies in the knowledge industry," says Hamilton. "That's why the CFI and MRI fund these programs: they don't just buy technology, they buy people."