Letter to the Editor

Cold climate centre proposal raises questions The Yukon government plans to build a 6,930-square-metre facility near Whitehorse’s Yukon…

Cold climate centre

proposal raises questions

The Yukon government plans to build a 6,930-square-metre facility near Whitehorse’s Yukon College at a projected construction cost of up to $20 million.

In fact, through its initial operating phase, costs could be closer to $50 million.

It was to hire its director and full-time administrative staff by March 31.

What would a Cold Climate Innovation Centre in the Yukon do? What would it look like?

There are similarities to the architecture, size and the ambitious, wide-ranging Arctic research agenda of the well known University Centre in Svalbard, Norway, (http://www.unis.no/) a government owned northern research facility that is practically an extension of four universities.

The northern research in Svalbard on Spitsbergen, like the Yukon project, has a northern problems/natural science focus but also has university level teaching and research programs.

There are representatives from the universities of Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø and NTNU in Trondheim on its board. It has a research and science staff of 35. It has 20 administrative and technical staff and roughly 130 guest lecturers per year and 21 adjunct professors.

What are the differences?

The Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Cluster and Technology Centre appears to be an opportunity to look for better climate adaptations in house and road construction, environmental and energy technologies and to assist related Northern innovative business upstarts, expansions or products.

The two studies, (http://www.yukoncoldtech.com/) that were prepared for the Yukon government, recognize future challenges in relation to export opportunities, new industrial stresses in relation to climate change and therefore growth and export potential especially of well adapted Northern technologies, but say nothing about established university links or even integration with a university.

This worries me because the ambitious project is obviously in need of substantial base-research options.

Both the feasibility and the business study are inconsistent on this point.

“If this project is to succeed anywhere, that place is Whitehorse,” said the feasibility study on page 25. “But, before the cluster itself can succeed, a gap in the Yukon’s infrastructure must be addressed.”

As the National Research Council states on its cluster webpage, quoted above, “clusters  need a science and technology anchor, usually a government research institution or a university…. No such anchor exists in Canada north of 60.”

Well put.

Now, how do the two studies address the problem?

For one thing a board structure is proposed without university or “outside” participation.

According to the studies, after the startup the centre will spend millions, seemingly in a very top heavy and outdated way, on six full-time management positions. There will be no science staff — excellence will come cheap.

This is fantasy because good science is not cheap.

Some, but not all, of the proposed projects the centre might tackle include:

• Remediation of hydrocarbon/chemical spills in permafrost terrain.

• Contaminant removal in water and soils.

• Innovative road construction.

• Low-maintenance grey-water and sewage  systems for small remote communities.

• Development of structures, foundations or floor slabs capable of surviving damage typically related to permafrost and melting subgrades.

• Housing construction processes for export.

• Development and application of  sensors, telemetry and wireless systems for detection and measurement of changes in permafrost.

• Capture and use of methane from permafrost thawing.

“The cold climate innovation cluster will grow on a foundation of unique facilities and a network of personnel focused on practical, real-life situations,” according to page two of the business study.

“Investors will be able to test and troubleshoot solutions and products in conditions that are close to reality and validate the claims for their  products….”

The roads to products could be a bit longer than that.

I suggest that in Canada and elsewhere most of this is university level work.

In the Yukon there are already various Arctic and polar shared-research affiliations, both national and international, but they don’t have a needed focus on experimental work.

In both studies, the notion is that the Yukon, pulling inspiration from here and there, will find project-specific university partnerships.

That it can dream up enough applied science to tackle difficult things.

That it can come up with breakthrough products.

The “Yukon aspect” of the project is nice, but it is not enough.

Advancing far-reaching industrial project and process developments without adequate research capacities is reminiscent of a five-year production plan from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Along those lines, the Yukon government’s business study, (http://www.yukoncoldtech.com/) predicts the new technology centre will generate more than 10 business upstarts per year and generate $5 million in annual revenues.

Not only is there no scientific research partnership established, there is not a single letter of support.

I think it would be great to have a Cold Climate Innovation Centre — perhaps, at this time, it should be nothing more than a small downtown office.

My impression is that the cart is leading the horse.

These are weighty differences to Svalbard, which had university level from the get go. It  is remote, but is an international leader in Cold Climate Technology.

The studies are quite brief in this regard.

There is no university in the Yukon, or the other territories nor even in the northernmost parts of Alberta or BC.

Yukon College offers a few low-level university credits.

Just as social sciences need a community surrounding, for a readily available field of application for research, natural science, with its need for heavy physical infrastructure, labs, shops and field experiments, needs a home too.

A natural science program can be productive because of a dozen aspects of industrial geography, continuity and proximity of qualified people.

The very idea of a technology cluster has natural science capacities at its centre and it cannot be faked.

Knowledge can travel quickly these days, yes — to places that have a functioning container for it.

There are excellent innovative companies and projects in the Yukon. They belong in a conversation with scientists.

Infrastructure for applied science in connection with some product development is established in the Yukon.

And it is true that most new products don’t come out of universities, they originate in the private sector, where there’s a focus on efficient short-trajectory research and development, as Dr. Alan Cornford, a contributor to the business study, suggests.

But the proposed project agenda reaches into concept innovation beyond applied science.

From my own university and product-focused R&D experiences, I would like to suggest, as analogy, a meadow flower: If there is no meadow, there is no flower.

Sometimes base research can fill in a missing link in a particular product or method development.

But what counts most is the volume of such research, genius and, last but not least, academic freedom.

Different to tightly managed planning, experimental achievement paths are often non linear.

Private-sector research and development does build, and rightly so, on the science sector which does operate differently to the private sector.

It’s not critical for the private sector to understand the difference as long as the product technology is effective and attractive.

But it’s important for government to understand the difference.

For example, there is not much doubt that cornerstones of a modern society and economy — air transportation, satellite communication, advanced medicine etc.— would not exist without governments.

There is really nothing that can replace base research science programs.

Research plus teaching equals university; what we have in the Yukon is a college, which focuses on training and, at times, has visiting guest scientists.

It’s a different academic environment and not conducive to cutting-edge research.

An underlying confusion about the Cold Climate Innovation Centre’s purpose runs through both studies.

If the issue is building new skills that are being developed in Norway or Alaska — well that could be done from an expansion of the existing college.

The good thing about the Cold Climate Innovation Centre plan is that it acknowledges the need for a cold climate technology focus.

Before we sink up to $50 million into the quicksand of a failed  project, why not invest them towards a university in the Yukon.

The Yukon Cold Climate Innovation Cluster and Technology Centre would grow from there.

Perhaps this will give it time to learn more about some of these goals that the two overdrawn, slightly inbred studies pretend to know. (See them at http://www.yukoncoldtech.com/.)

Peter A Becker