USask selects three new signature areas of research

Researchers embrace exploration — responding to emerging questions and needs as they arise in the pursuit of new knowledge. The renewal process for the University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) signature areas of research is taking place with this spirit of responsiveness in mind.

The result is the selection of three new signature areas: Communities and Sustainability (proponent leads: Dr. Doug Clark (PhD) and Dr. Marc-Andre Pigeon (PhD)), Health and Wellness (proponent leads: Dr. John Gordon (PhD), Dr. Alexandra King (MD), Dr. Sylvia Abonyi (PhD), Dr. Jennifer Lang (PhD), Professor Dean McNeill, Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine (PhD), Dr. Cory Neudorf (MD), Dr. Thilina Bandara (PhD), Dr. Ulrich Teucher (PhD), Dr. Avi Akkerman (PhD), Dr. Laura Wright (PhD)), and Quantum Innovation (proponent lead: Dr. Steven Rayan (PhD)).

“We have been on a journey of discovery,” said USask Vice-President Research Baljit Singh, who co-leads the renewal process with Provost and Vice-President Academic Airini.

“We came to this project willing to be adaptive and without a predetermined process as we looked at how to align our research resources, organize our interdisciplinary work and uplift areas of research excellence. The new areas were carefully selected in a deeply collaborative way.”

USask’s six current signature areas of research — Agriculture, Energy and Mineral Resources, Indigenous Peoples, Synchrotron Sciences, One Health, and Water Security — were selected a decade ago after a campus-wide consultation process. These will remain, although Water Security (proponent lead: Dr. Jay Famiglietti (PhD)), and Energy and Mineral Resources (proponent leads: Dr. Terry Fonstad (PhD), Dr. Bram Noble (PhD), Dr. Greg Poelzer (PhD), and Dr. Andrew Grosvenor (PhD) will undergo updates based on pitches presented in the process. The other four areas will be reviewed in 2024.

“We heard that after 10 years it was time to open up a discussion about where our strengths lie, and uncover new possibilities for collaboration and excellence in research, scholarship and creative works,” said Dr. Airini. “Dr. Singh and I both are genuinely grateful for all those who took part in these exciting and important discussions.”

Singh, Airini and the steering committee were careful to try to avoid a “winners and losers” approach in the process. Pitches that were not selected as signature areas are deeply valued and will inform research initiatives, priorities, and pursuits.

“There are no unsuccessful proposals,” Singh said. “Each and every group provided contributions that will shape the future vision of our research endeavours.”

The signature areas of research renewal process began in May 2021 in consultation with research and teaching chairs. This was followed by eight consultation sessions on current signature areas, which were attended by about 600 faculty members. Through the summer, an advisory circle created terms of reference and a roadmap for the renewal process.

Next, a steering committee came together in August and facilitated pitch sessions that were open to all members of the USask community. The steering committee, co-chaired by Airini and Singh, was composed of deans, executive directors and leaders representing a wide variety of areas of study. The committee also included two external stakeholders: a USask alumnus and the executive director of Innovation Saskatchewan.

“Our signature areas send an important message regarding our unique research strengths. Given their significance, it is essential that the USask community has pooled its collective wisdom and experience to explore new areas and identify leadership for them,” said USask President Peter Stoicheff.

A total of 16 pitches came from a wide variety of research areas and disciplines. They were presented in virtual settings to the steering committee and interested parties from the USask community. The pitches were recorded and were available for viewing by any USask community member. The community was invited to provide feedback on the pitches through a survey.

Dean of Medicine Dr. Preston Smith (MD) is a member of the steering committee and said in addition to having a chance to be involved in the selection process, it was a chance to learn about the wide variety of research work happening in the academy.

“I really valued the opportunity to hear the USask signature areas of research pitches,” said Smith. “It expanded my understanding of the breadth and significance of the research being carried out at our university.”

The steering committee evaluated and discussed the pitches and provided feedback both to the pitch proponents and Singh and Airini. In a small pivot from the original plan, pitch proponents were grouped together after their presentations and asked to connect to see if there was potential for further collaboration and interdisciplinary synergy. Some chose to come together, while others decided to stand alone.

Rayan, an associate professor mathematics and statistics in the College of Arts and Science, is a proponent of the successful Quantum Innovation pitch and is impressed with the transparency and inclusive nature of the process.

“I am very pleased with how symbiotic the process has been. The way in which it evolved in response to the specific content of our pitches felt like a collaboration with the committee and the OVPR (Office of the Vice-President Research) team rather than something one-sided and shrouded in mystery,” he said.

“I am grateful to the vice-president research, the OVPR team, the Advisory Circle and Steering Committee, and all of the pitch proponents and stakeholders for proving yet again that there is no better place than the University of Saskatchewan at which to bring to life the research, scholarly, and artistic work that will change the world.”

Debra Pozega Osburn, Vice-President University Relations at USask, sees the revision of the signature areas as an important process to shape how the institution is seen and understood — both by USask and the larger world.

“The selection of new signature areas indicates we are growing and evolving as a research-focused institution,” she said. “We are building on our strong history of delivering discovery the world needs.”

The signature areas renewal process lays out important information for those ensuring research has the resources and support it needs, said Greg Fowler, Vice-President Finance and Resources.

“For USask as a whole to succeed, our research enterprise must be firing on all cylinders,” Fowler said. “This process allowed the community to help shape a vision of excellence we can pursue.”

Singh said the process does not just involve the selection of new areas of focus and will create the means for signature areas to be evaluated on a more consistent basis.

Discussions included the need for a signature area leaders to be selected by those working in the area, and a signature areas co-ordinator to offer staff support to all the signature area leaders. As well, the OVPR will lend other forms of support as needed.

“We appreciate those who have participated in this experience with us so far, and we are on a path that will celebrate and empower research excellence at USask now and in the future,” Singh said.

Full executive summaries, recordings of the pitches and more information on the steering committee and advisory circle can be found on the Signature Areas Renewal website. There is also a feedback/question form on the site for those who would like more information on the renewal project.

A special edition of Campus Conversations will be held on March 2 at noon to allow feedback from the academy on the new signature areas of research and the process. Sign up here: https://www.surveymonkey.ca/r/CampusConversationMarch2022

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