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Q&A; with Dr. Don Jamieson, CLLRNet's Scientific Director

Jill Wright, Dialogue's Editor, sat down with Dr. Don Jamieson in early December to reflect on the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network's development since March 2001.

Q. What is CLLRNet all about? Provide us with a bit of background on challenges facing the Network.

Like all NCEs, CLLRNet is about doing good research and applying the results to benefit Canadians. There are many components to this, but one particularly important component involves effective communication -- among CLLRNet researchers and between our researchers and those who can beneficially apply the results of our research.

A major challenge is that research on language and literacy takes place in many different disciplines. CLLRNet combines the talents of researchers from at least 11 different disciplines, and historically there has been too little communication among people from these different disciplines. As a result, "silos" of knowledge and of research methodologies have been built up, reducing the sharing of information and hindering the advancement of knowledge.

Another challenge is ensuring that knowledge generated by researchers is applied appropriately. All too often, science has had insufficient impact on the policies and practices that are intended to facilitate language and literacy development. The result is that our society wastes both human and financial resources, even when everyone involved has the best of intentions.

Q. So CLLRNet isn't just another granting program?

That's correct. Think of it this way. The entire NCE program provides only about 6% of the amount provided to Canadian university researchers, by the federal government.The NCE's therefore build on the base of the research that is funded through these other sources. The NCEs accomplish their goals by helping to focus and apply the results from this other funding to individuals and small groups. The NCE project grants that we give build on rather than replace the other work that our researchers do.

Q. With collaboration being key, how might CLLRNet foster sharing?

The NCE and CLLRNet understand that collaboration and knowledge transfer don't occur automatically or easily. They need to be supported. CLLRNet plans to assist in several ways. One will be the interactive website that we are currently developing. Another is by providing opportunities for face to face interaction - among researchers, and between researchers and those who can apply research to influence policy and practice. Our annual conference in Ottawa, May 2 through May 4, will be one of these opportunities, but we've already started - the leaders of our various research themes meet regularly both in person and by teleconference and those leading each of the 42 research projects came together for a two-day meeting this past October.

Individual researchers are embracing the collaboration and this is already enhancing their research. For example, Network Investigators are setting up meetings with other CLLRNet members when they attend national and international conferences. Network members are also involving colleagues from other disciplines in their association meetings. Outside the network, we are seeing ties strengthening with other agencies and CLLRNet is meeting and listening to the needs of our various partners.

Q. How will the NCE program decide whether or not CLLRNet is successful?

Ultimately the NCE is going to assess the value added to our society as a result of creating CLLRNet. We'll be evaluated using the same five criteria that are applied to evaluate the other 21 NCE organizations.

The five criteria that guide the NCEs are:

  1. Excellence of the research program
  2. Development of highly qualified personnel
  3. Networking and partnerships
  4. Knowledge exchange and technology exploitation
  5. Management of the Network

All five criteria are given approximately equal weight, so you can see that this is about a lot more than just doing good research.

Q. How will the strategic direction of our research be determined over the longer term?

There are both internal and external influences on our research program. The first considerations of course are the abilities and interests of CLLRNet Investigators. These considerations determine what we are able to do and where we can be successful.

Second, CLLRNet has several formal groups that help shape our research program. Our Research Management Committee brings together the leaders of each of our research themes. This group has the pulse of language and literacy research - both within our network and internationally. As well, our Board of Directors will be directly involved in setting our research direction. Finally, CLLRNet will have an External Scientific Review Board, comprised of internationally recognized experts, to help us review and refine our research program.

In addition, we need to have effective communication with a range of outside groups. For example, we need to listen to provincal ministries, business partners, educators, language and literacy professionals and so forth. These groups all need access to good science to be successful, and CLLRNet can help to provide that science. Discussions with all our target audiences will identify what needs they are identifying and this, in turn, will open new opportunities for CLLRNet researchers to participate in exciting new projects.

Q. The NCE program has been operating for 11 years, what are some lessons CLLRNet is incorporating from studying the histories of other Networks?

There are many lessons to be learned, as some NCE programs have been highly successful, while others have been discontinued.

The success of the network is ultimately up to the people involved. Individual investigators have the most important role to play, but how we manage our affairs is also critically important. The Network's Board of Directors has overall responsibility for ensuring that we are on the right path. We have a talented, dynamic and dedicated Board and it will very much be a working Board.

Our Research Management Committee is key to developing the strategic vision for the Network and helping to manage and monitor all our research projects. Networks have to be focused on results, so all the various research projects must be reviewed regularly and evaluated to ensure that they continue to make good progress and contribute to our Network's goals. Because of the importance of this project selection and review process, our Research Management Committee and External Scientific Review Board will be key factors in CLLRNet's success.

We also need to ensure that the NCE itself evaluates CLLRNet in an appropriate way. We are different from most of the other networks that the NCE program has created, in that we have more limited opportunities for private-sector partnerships and the generation of significant economic activity and income than the more traditional types of networks have had. With respect to some of the most important criteria applied by government, CLLRNet's impact can only be measured in the long term. For example, it will take years before we can quantify the economic and career impacts of interventions in childhood, but these are the types of social and economic consequences of our work that some of our potential partners are interested in seeing.

CLLRNet's first major evaluation milestone will come in less than three years, so it is important that we develop performance indicators that are appropriate for the type of work we are doing. For this reason, I was very pleased that the Chair of our Board of Directors, Dr. Martin Walmsley, volunteered to form a committee that will identify the appropriate performance indicators for CLLRNet. Martin can draw on his vast experience relating to science policy for this task, and he is also presently involved in helping the federal government measure the impact of science on government agencies.

Dr. Don Jamieson, is Scientific Director and C.E.O. of CLLRNet. He is responsible for providing scientific leadership and direction to the Network. Don can be reached at jamieson@nca.uwo.ca or by calling (519) 661-3901.