Innovation Anthology

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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #315
Program Date: 05/18/2010
Program Category: Health and Medicine

Dr. Jacques Magnan New CEO of Alberta Innovates Health Solutions

PROGRAM #315 INTERVIEW WITH DR. JACQUES MAGNAN

MP3: 20.2 MB
Time: 22:14 Minutes

Dr. Jacques Magnan is the CEO of Alberta Innovates Health Solutions.

Dr. Jacques Magnan

 

CC:  JACQUES, TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND.  WHAT IS IT THAT YOU GOT YOUR PHD’S IN?

 

JM:  Well I trained as a chemist first as an undergraduate and then was interested in biology more than chemistry I think, so ended up in pharmacology, which is a good mixture of chemistry and biology to a certain degree.  So I got my PhD in pharmacology about 31 years ago and then continued to train as a pharmacologist after that.  So post-docs in Scotland and Toronto and Montreal, and then became a university professor.  Like all good PhD’s at the time, the only future that you saw as far as having this kind of training was literally to have a career in academic research.  So I became a researcher at the University in Montreal and did that for a number of years. 

 

Then I realized that I had maybe a different calling and went into the administration of science.   And I’ve been doing this at the Medical Research Council for a number of years and then came to the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research in 1994--16 years ago.  And this is my job.  This is my life. 

 

CC:  WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING THE ADMINISTRATION SIDE OF SCIENCE AND RESEARCH?

 

JM:  Well that’s an interesting question, because from my perspective, I needed to have the background in science to understand what needed to be done to really make sure that actually the administration of science was done in the right way. 

 

When I first arrived at the Medical Research Council for example, I was surprised to see that the vast majority of people that worked there, that did the administration of the peer review process that did the administration of the granting processes, actually had no understanding of what that was all about.  They had never done that. 

 

They were basically, that was their job, they did a really good job, they did very well in terms of what they were doing, but they didn’t understand what it meant for somebody to apply for a grant, or apply for a salary award, for example, because they hadn’t been on the other end of this, which was you’ve applied, you’ve been successful, or you’ve applied and you’ve not been successful.   And you understand what it means in terms of the impact of those programs on your activities. 

 

I think the administration of science is very important.  I mean, there’s a huge amount of activity going on.  There’s a lot of high quality research that needs to be reviewed, that needs to be supported appropriately, and somebody needs to look at that side of things. 

 

And again, I think that having the background in science and the experience in science helps translate that into understanding what needs to be done in terms of putting the processes in place to get that done properly.

 

CC:  WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS ON RESEARCHERS AND PEOPLE LIKE YOURSELF TO MAKE SURE THAT THE TYPE OF SCIENCE BEING DONE IS ACTUALLY GOOD SCIENCE?

 

JM:  That’s an important question.  Again, the big issue is who defines what’s good.  If you are a researcher and you basically have an idea and you can rationalize that idea by looking at what’s been done around the science that you are proposing to do, you can justify it, you can provide a good rationale, you can say hey, ‘I’m doing good science here, why can’t people fund me’. 

 

I mean you’re perspective of what you’re proposing to do is good; it will answer an important question because you’ve thought about it.  And therefore somebody should support that and should enable you to go out and seek out answers to those questions.  That’s good science. 

 

And from the perspective of the user of that science, is this good science as well.  So there’s always the perspective of the person that will receive the knowledge or that will use the knowledge that comes out of science. 

 

And so good science may be seen differently from the perspective of someone who says, well you’re asking a really interesting question, but that’s not the question I’m interested in.  For me, good science would be something that would give me the answer to the question that I’m interested in.  I mean, if we are interested in understanding if this intervention is better than that intervention, for example, well the good science is going to give us the answer to that. 

 

It may not be the answer that we know is going to happen but it’s the answer that science gives us.  That’s good science, as well.  So good science depends I think on the eye of the beholder.  If the scientist is proposing the research, if the user of health information or knowledge is asking the question, they may define that good or important science may be different from each other’s perspective. 

 

CC:  DO YOU THINK THAT WE’VE GOTTEN BETTER IN TERMS OF UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO THE PUBLIC, BOTH LOOKING AT IT FROM THE PUBLIC PERSPECTIVE AND ALSO FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE TO MAKE THE DECISIONS?

 

JM:  I think there’s a lot more information about science that’s available now.  I’m not sure that that means people understand science any better than they did before.  Science is much more complicated and complex than it was 20, 30, 50 years ago.  The questions that are being asked are more complex.  The answers that are being provided are more, can be so detailed or can be so complicated in terms of the information that’s provided.  I’m not sure that the public understands more science now than they did 50 years ago. 

 

I think they are more exposed to it.  I think there’s a lot more information out there.  But getting through that information and getting the right information for the question they’re asking may not be something that we do particularly well. 

 

CC:  NOW YOU CAME OUT TO ALBERTA, YOU’VE BEEN WITH THE ALBERTA HERITAGE FOUNDATION FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH SINCE 1994, SO 16 YEARS.  AND THEN OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS YOU’VE BEEN THE ACTING CEO AND PRESIDENT.  NOW YOU’VE BEEN CONFIRMED AS THE PRESIDENT OF THE NEW ORGANIZATION THAT’S KIND OF TAKING OVER FROM AHFMR.  WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE ACTUALLY NOW HAVING MOVED FROM ONE TO THE OTHER AND HAVING OVERSEEN THE CHANGE THAT’S COME ABOUT AS YOU’VE GONE FROM AHFMR TO ALBERTA INNOVATES?

 

JM:  Well there are a lot of mixed emotions.  From one perspective having been involved and having worked at the Foundation for 14-15 years before the change, I mean, I came to this province because of the reputation of the organization.  Like many of the researchers that were attracted to the province over the last 30 years, that came in a large part because of the opportunities that the Heritage Foundation for Medical Research provided.  That was the same thing for me.  I came here because of the reputation of this organization as a first class organization.  As an organization that really was dedicated to supporting quality research. 

 

So from that perspective seeing any kind of change to an organization that has a high quality reputation is always challenging.  Because you say, wow what are we going to lose in terms of that? 

 

On the other hand, change is good too, because it provides for opportunities for doing new things, for looking at things from different perspectives.  And also for developing some approaches that may be actually the more appropriate approaches in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years. 

 

So I think, you know, you have mixed emotions.  On the one hand you hate to see something that is working very well be destroyed or be changed or be modified.  But on the other hand, I mean, having gone through a lot of the discussions around the development of the system now, I see a lot of opportunities for reinventing the way we do things in Alberta. 

 

And for, again, basically looking at opportunities for the future with a very positive sense of accomplishment and wanting to accomplish new things. 

 

So again, there’s mixed emotion.  I mean, AHFMR from my perspective has always been and will always be an incredible innovative organization.  It was created at a time when actually the thinking in terms of provincial funding was not there at all in terms of Canada.  The only other province in that activity was Quebec at the time and that was a very different model. 

 

So the innovation that was provided through the creation of Heritage, the longstanding tradition of supporting quality, excellence in research, the impact of building the capacity in Alberta, all of these things have been tremendous over 30 years. 

 

So I mean part of that letting go is difficult.  On the other hand, I mean, recognizing the fact that we are in 2010, that research and innovation is being perceived very differently, not only by government but by the public, by academia.  Research is a big business now, has a big opportunity for investment; and from that perspective, understanding that that investment also has a responsibility to deliver value back to the people who invest in it, is very important. 

 

The Foundation and the money that supports the Foundation is public dollars.  And so from that perspective, recognizing the fact that you ought to give back to the public of Alberta some value from that investment is crucial. 

 

The argument is always that knowledge is value.  And knowledge or research for the sake of creating knowledge creates value, intrinsic value that will eventually provide some maybe more tangible return on investment is absolutely there.  There’s no question about that. 

 

Maybe what we are trying to do is understand that the needs may be for accelerating the transfer of that value from the knowledge that is created from research into benefits for the province. 

 

So I think there are opportunities and I’m looking forward to the future in terms of that actually. 

 

CC:  WHAT STAYS THE SAME AND WHAT CHANGES IN TERMS OF THE PROGRAMS THAT YOU HAD ESTABLISHED?

 

JM:  So in terms of programs, that’s a good question.  At this point in time, we’re just at the front end of the real transition.  So we’ve been talking about changing the system for a year and a half now.  We have now through the Research and Innovation Act, created the structures that are needed to get us to the next level. 

 

So there are now the Corporations that have been created in the province that will support research and innovation in health, in biosciences, agriculture and forestry, and in energy and the environment as well as an organization that has been created specifically for the technology commercialization, supporting the technology commercialization aspect of that. 

 

The structures are now in place, the new boards are in place, and we’re now basically really entering into the transition phase. 

 

So one of the first things that the board has to look at is exactly what you’re asking.  What current programs of AHFMR, or how the current programs of AHFMR contribute to new roles and mandate of this organization? 

 

So the mandate has been defined slightly differently.  The roles have been targeted a little bit more toward the innovation side of things.  So we need to assess properly how the programs and activities of AHFMR are contributing to those roles; and whether there needs to be some changes. 

 

There’s already been some changes in terms of some of the programs and we’re going to continue over the next few months to do strategic planning and to basically assess how best to move forward. 

 

So I think the strategies are going to emerge over the next six to nine months and that question will be better answered nine months from now when I know what the new programs are going to look like. 

 

Clearly we’re not going to be in the long term salary support of investigators like AHFMR has been for the last 30 years.  That program has already been closed-- the AHFMR investigator program.  And so that’s going to give us an opportunity to readjust how we move forward. 

 

So that’s one program that’s not going to be in place.  It doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in people, and doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in supporting the attraction of people to the province, but it does mean we’re going to share differently with the universities and with the department of Advanced Education and Technology the responsibility of maintaining in the long term the investigators in place in the province. 

 

What it does is it does free up some of the resources that the Foundation has at its disposal and it does provide us with an opportunity then to reinvest those resources into more direct research support. 

 

So that’s a key change and that’s a major change in terms of the key strategy that was in place for AHFMR that is not going to be in place for AIHS. 

 

CC:  WELL WHAT ABOUT, FOR EXAMPLE, THE POLARIS PRIZE WHICH HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED JUST BEFORE THE CHANGE CAME ABOUT AND YOU DID SELECT AN INVESTIGATOR.  WHAT HAPPENS TO SOMETHING LIKE THAT?

 

JM:  So the commitments that we have to the Polaris awards are still in place.  So Dr. McNaughton has been recruited to the University of Lethbridge, and we continue to support that Polaris award for the duration of the award.  So, we put it in place in 2008 and so he’s got another eight years of support coming to him.  So the plan was always to support him for the ten years of the award, so that’s in place and that continues to be in place. 

 

We have investigator awards that are in place until 2017.  All of these commitments to these investigator awards are going to be fully met by AIHS, therefore there still continues to be a major support for investigators that’s going to happen over next six to seven years as we transition from the current programs of activity to the new program.

 

CC:  WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ENDOWMENT FUND?

 

JM:  The endowment fund is still in place.  The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Endowment Fund is still in place.  It continues to be managed through the auspices of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation and it continues to be in place and to be available to support research in the province. 

 

CC:  FOR YOURSELF AS YOU LOOK FORWARD, WHAT IS THE VISION THAT’S EMERGING FOR THIS NEW ENTITY?

 

JM:  The vision is for an organization that may be more responsive to the needs of the stakeholders and the stakeholders being seen as more than just the research community in Alberta.  In other words, we have one shareholder right now—the government of Alberta. 

 

We have many, many different stakeholders whether it’s the universities; whether it’s the health system is a key stakeholder for example; whether it’s the private sector or private industry in the province.  So we need to understand a little bit better so the different dimensions that these stakeholders bring to the table, the different questions, and the different needs that they bring to the table. 

 

I think we were created and we worked very well within the concept of having a fairly well-recognized and well-defined relationship with one key stakeholder group and that was the research community and academia in the province.

 

We haven’t done that well in maintaining and developing links to the health system and, you know, research can contribute quite significantly to improving the efficiency of the health system for example.  We have done that to a certain extent over the last maybe ten-fifteen years but we’ve basically had, the main focus has been on supporting capacity for research in the province on developing knowledge from that capacity and for the expectation that innovation or outcomes would eventually come out of that knowledge base.

 

I think we’re now looking at maybe balancing that push mechanism with a bit of a pull mechanism recognizing what the questions may be from the health sector or the important questions that come in from the private sector or even actually key questions that come in from the research community as well but maybe focusing a little bit more the research on trying to provide some value in a more timely fashion to these questions that come from the different stakeholder groups. 

 

I think it’s a different model.  It’s a bit more of a balance between is it a push and pull mechanism of transferring knowledge from research to application.  So, I think it’s a change of culture to a certain degree and it’s something that is happening not only in Alberta but around the world so it puts us in a good position to take advantage of potential international and national opportunities and to contribute to the global health enterprise in a different way. 

 

CC:  WELL, AS YOU MOVE FROM THIS BEING AN ARM’S LENGTH STAND ALONE ORGANIZATION AND NOW YOU’RE UNDER THE UMBRELLA OF ALBERTA INNOVATES, WHAT DOES THAT DO FOR YOU?  ARE YOU GOING TO BE ABLE TO ADDRESS THE GAPS?

 

JM:  I’m not sure that the governance structure changes our ability to address the gaps.  The governance structure is different.  You’re right.  I mean basically as I said, we have one shareholder and that’s the government of Alberta. 

 

The government is going to define the priorities that the government has in the sense that it’s going to give us a good idea of opportunities where research can contribute to answering some of the key questions the government has.

 

I don’t think the government is going to define in a limited or limiting way what we should do and it’s not going to say, for example, you should only invest in cancer research or you should only invest in diabetes research or you should not invest in one area or another.  It’s going to give us an opportunity to look at saying, you know, we have some major health issues in the province for example in this area or this area, or this area. 

 

We have some population that has some special needs.  We have some platforms that have developed in the province that are very important for the province so look at these questions that are important or needs of the population or the private sector at these platforms that we have invested in and look at the opportunities to really add value through the use of these opportunities. 

 

So, I think, again the question from research still remains the same.  Researchers are always looking for filling the gaps.  They are basically saying, you know, we know all of this.  We have the state of knowledge in this particular field, to this level; I want to contribute to the next level. 

 

Well, I mean, it may very well be that the researchers will be that they will continue to do that.  It may very well be though that they will talk to other people and verify the fact that the gap that they are entering into is also of interest to a different group; or they may identify the gap differently because they’ve said ‘Oh well I’m interested in this problem’.  You mean this question is particularly important to you?  Well, you know what, that’s a good question.  That would be an interesting question for me to research as well and it may be that that dialogue leads to the knowledge that’s going to be generated being applied a little bit more rapidly or in an accelerated way because the user has already said to the researcher, ‘Hey, that question would be of interest to us’.

 

So I think the gaps are maybe identified a little bit differently but research is still going to be basically working within the gaps of knowledge and trying to fill the gaps of knowledge.  So, it’s a balance between again this notion of supporting basic research or research that’s investigator driven versus research that is basically contracted or commissioned by somebody asking the question.  It’s a balance between the two models and I think we’re just seeing the front end of that rebalancing to a certain degree.  It doesn’t mean that’s it’s going to be and I certainly can say right now it’s not going to be 100% one way or 100% the other way.  It’s finding the right balance between those two approaches. 

 

CC:  WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN UNDER YOUR WATCH?  WHAT’S YOUR BURNING ISSUE?

 

JM:  My burning issue right now is to get…we have a lot of anxiety in the community of research in the province right now.  What I would like to see over the next couple of years is a stabilization of the capacity that we have put in place in the province. 

 

We have worked for thirty years in collaboration in a strong partnership with the universities to bring high quality people to this province and to support them in this province.  I don’t want this is to disappear.  So my first priority under my watch is to make sure that we try to stabilize this capacity at the level of support that it needs to continue to be in place to be active and to be engaged in wanting to continue to work in Alberta.  That’s the first thing. 

 

The second thing is then to recognize the fact that as we move to a different system we continue to use this research community in the best possible way.  So, I think the difference is that we always focused on attraction and then creation—attracting people, supporting them and helping them create.  I think we need to go beyond that now to recognize the fact that in addition to creating, we need to exploit better and we need to solve questions and we need to solve problems that are important for stakeholders in the province of Alberta. 

 

So, I think that it’s a shifting landscape and what I’d like to see if I leave here two years or three years or five years down the road, is AIHS established on the same strong foundation that AHFMR was established which is a quality activity that we support relevance of that activity for the needs of Albertans.  And, if we’ve moved towards that new landscape and we started changing the culture in such a way that we basically accept the fact that we are under a new model, if you will, of supporting research and that people recognize the fact that they have opportunities under that model, and they’re happy and they continue to be dynamically contributing to that, I’ll be happy enough. 

 

CC:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH JACQUES.

 

JM:  You’re welcome.  Thank you.

 

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