York’s new president shares her insights on research amplification

Rhonda Lenton

On July 1, 2017, York University’s new President and Vice-Chancellor, Rhonda L. Lenton, took the helm of Canada’s third-largest university.

Lenton, who began at York in 2002, is deeply committed to achieving the highest levels of excellence for York as a leading comprehensive university, and to building on the University’s mission to deliver new ways of thinking that drive teaching, learning and research excellence.

She is dedicated to further developing York University’s commitment to innovative learning environments, diverse experiential learning, unique cross-disciplinary programs and community-engaged research opportunities.

In this Q&A with Brainstorm, Lenton outlines a future for York in which research and innovation continue to play a vital and ever-amplifying role.

Q: What is your vision for the future for research and innovation at York University?

A: I believe it’s important to talk about the vision for York University as a whole. York is quite unique. We are a university that provides a broad sociodemographic of students access to a research-intensive, high-quality learning experience. That’s very important when I think about where we are going with research intensification.

Historically, York is known for its incredible strength in the humanities and social sciences, environmental studies, business, law and health. But over the last number of years, we have been strengthening and amplifying research, so that today we are a comprehensive university that is strong in many different areas. So, for me, moving forward, our priority is to continue to strengthen that amplification across the entire University.

“York is quite unique. We provide a broad sociodemographic of students access to a research-intensive, high-quality learning experience.” – York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

When I think about what that means for the University, we need to support faculty complement renewal and make sure that we are bolstering the entire breadth of scholarship, research and creative activities. This means including pure and discovery research, and thinking about applied research as well as opportunities for large, collaborative types of research that build on York’s established strengths in inter- and trans-disciplinary scholarship, research and creative activities.

When I think about what that means for the University, we need to support faculty complement renewal and make sure that we are bolstering the entire breadth of scholarship, research and creative activities. This means including pure and discovery research, and thinking about applied research as well as opportunities for large, collaborative types of research that build on York’s established strengths in inter- and trans-disciplinary scholarship, research and creative activities.

Vari Hall photographed in the evening

York University is an internationally recognized research university

Q: Reflecting on research and innovation at York University, how would you characterize the last five years?

A: I would highlight the rapid and successful amplification of scholarship, research and creative activities over the last five years. This is due, in large measure, to the type of planning culture that we have at York. One important example of this is the development of our “Strategic Research Plan.” In terms of operationalizing that plan and helping everyone across the University to move forward and amplify our research efforts, the development of PIER or the “Plan for the Intensification and Enhancement of Research,” has been incredibly important.

“I would highlight the rapid and successful amplification of scholarship, research and creative activities over the last five years.” – York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

PIER provided recommendations as to how we can increase and strengthen our activities, how York can establish itself as a leader in research, and where the opportunities are for us to do that. PIER considered the pressing research problems of the day, and how York can best leverage our strengths to contribute to those challenging, complex issues.

I have seen, over the last five years under the leadership of our Vice-President Research & Innovation, Robert Haché, a real vision of purpose around our research. We are keenly focused on impact, and how we can ensure that the research activities we are undertaking have a broad impact on social, cultural, economic and other wellbeing of society, both locally and internationally.

We have been on a trajectory  ̶  one that I fully expect we will see strengthening in the future.

Students walk through the atrium of the Scott Library

York University has one of the highest growth rates in scholarly output in Ontario for the last decade

“I have seen a real vision of purpose around our research. The research activities we are undertaking have a broad impact on social, cultural, economic and other wellbeing of society, both locally and internationally.”  ̶  York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

Q: What kinds of successes illustrate the amplification of research and innovation at York?

A:  There are many examples. One of the reasons York has had so much success is because we are supporting scholarship, research and creative activities right across the board, in a very comprehensive way.

Let me give you a few examples: York has one of the highest growth rates in scholarly output in Ontario for the last decade. This is hugely significant because it reflects our upward trajectory. York also leads in terms of the collaborative research publications that involve international scholarship. York is establishing a global network of international partnerships, which is key.

York is also well-known for the contributions we make in the areas of business and public policy, from the Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School. We are also first in Canada and third in the world in biological and computational vision research. This, undoubtedly, was a major factor in York’s success in receiving an unprecedented investment from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) and partners. We are also very strong in social science research, as I mentioned – for example, bullying research and refugee migration studies.

So, much of what characterizes York’s success goes back to that strength in inter- and transdisciplinary research. We need to continue supporting this vital work as we go forward.

Q: You mentioned York’s success in securing research funds. Can you elaborate?

A: Yes, our researchers have been successful. As I mentioned, last fall, the Vision: Science to Application (VISTA) program received an unprecedented $120 million investment from CFREF and partners. Speaking more broadly, in 2016 and 2017, York researchers received more than $14 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC); over $11 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC); and more than $3 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Above: From left, Pat Clifford, director of research & innovation, Southlake Regional Health Centre; Professor Spiros Pagiatakis, associate dean of research, Lassonde School of Engineering; Piotr Jasiobedzki, staff scientist, MDA Corporation; Faculty of Health Professor Doug Crawford, scientific director, VISTA; Judy Sgro, Member of Parliament, Humber River – Black Creek; Robert Haché, York University vice-president research & innovation; Gary Brewer, York University vice-president finance & administration; and Paul MacDonald, dean, Faculty of Health

York researchers secured a $120 million investment in the VISTA program. Photo credit: Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile

Q: What programs or centres support scholarly excellence at York?

A: York is home to 25 research centres that conduct ambitious, groundbreaking work. Our Research Chairs also support scholarly excellence. The Canada Research Chairs, or CRC, program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development. York has an allocation of 36 CRCs in diverse areas, including Indigenous environmental justice, health psychology, atomic physics and entrepreneurial innovation.

The York Research Chairs (YRC) program is the University’s internal counterpart of the CRC program. Importantly, the level of support and recognition provided to YRCs aligns with supports and recognition provided through the CRC program. As of August 1, 2017, York is home to 22 YRCs in a wide variety of fields, including women’s reproductive health, genomics, space technology, global digital citizenship, bioanalytical chemistry, planetary science, big data analytics and fine art.

Q: How important are partnerships, collaboration and community engagement to York’s research?

A: These are very important. Our researchers work extensively with academic partners, community groups and commercial partners in building their research programs.

Innovation York, the innovation office for the University, plays a vital role in providing services to faculty members, trainees, students, industry and the community. Innovation York’s accelerator spaces, such as the LaunchYU BEST Hub on York’s Keele Campus, YSpace Markham, and the IBM Innovation Space–Markham Convergence Centre, are thriving hubs for entrepreneurs and community members. In 2015-16, Innovation York, which also includes a Knowledge Mobilization Unit, created relationships with more than 100 companies, approved 500 agreements worth nearly $30 million, supported 20 commercialization projects and launched five start-up companies.

IBM Innovation Space - Markham Convergence Centre, interior

IBM Innovation Space – Markham Convergence Centre, co-founded by Innovation York

I am very interested in strengthening our connectedness with the community. Further examples of this important work would include our plans for the Markham Centre Campus and our valued relationships with our partners in this region, the subway extension, as well as our deep connections with the Franco-Ontarian community.

Connectedness is vital. My vision for the University involves connecting our academic and research excellence with our accessibility agenda, our diversity with our inclusivity. I would like to seize the opportunity to think big and to reflect on how York can be the model for the connected university in the 21st-century global knowledge economy.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, watch the York Research Impact Story, see the infographic poster or visit the YouTube playlist.  For an overview the York’s innovation office, watch the Innovation York video. For compelling research stories about the world-leading, policy-relevant work of York’s researchers and academics, visit the newsletter Brainstorm.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, muellerm@yorku.ca