Q-and-A with Vice-President Research and Innovation, Amir Asif, on returning to campus

A student conducts research in one of the science labs
A student conducts research in one of the science labs
Amir Asif
Amir Asif

York University’s Vice-President Research and Innovation, Amir Asif, sits down with YFile to discuss what a return to campus will mean for researchers at York. He feels optimistic, proud of the research community’s performance in the face of the pandemic, and is ready to welcome academics, scholars and researchers back when the timing is right.

Q. How has research and innovation at York fared over the past year?

A. Suffice to say, the last year has been challenging for the York community, especially for our researchers, faculty members and graduate students. Many traditional research activities have been suspended due to the pandemic. In times like this, I am particularly proud of my research colleagues who, despite the closure of the majority of on-campus facilities, interruptions in their research, or personal and family commitments, continued their research and scholarly activities to the best of their abilities.

It is an indication of the perseverance of our researchers that University research and innovation enterprise remained active over the last year, despite continued disruption due to COVID. While the results of most of our research grant competitions are still under embargo, I am looking forward to communicating some very positive results in most competitions. In several of these competitions, we continued to improve our performance, achieving some of the best results that we have obtained over an extended period of time.

Q. What can students and researchers expect for the Fall 2021 term?

A. Current indications, such as an accelerated COVID-19 vaccine roll-out across Canada, support increasing in-person academic and research opportunities on our campuses. We are planning to offer up to 50 per cent of courses in person for the Fall 2021 term and a full return in Winter 2022. Many graduate students will be able to enrol in on-campus courses. We are also planning to steadily open additional on-campus research facilities, increase opportunities for community-based research or research involving human participants, and enable more researchers to access their offices as soon as the provincial regulations and health and safety conditions permit.

In early June, we welcomed 132 undergraduate researchers back to on-campus research spaces (labs, studios). These are funded Research At York (RAY) students, NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award winners and undergrad researchers funded by their Faculties. With the help of associate deans research, we are working on a plan to increase on-campus research activities. Researchers currently conducting research remotely have been asked to provide input on their need of campus access for research in the coming months. Based on the information collected, we will be steadily facilitating increased on-campus access to more researchers.

We also look forward to maintaining engagement with our researchers online. York will continue to provide access to a high-quality remote learning and research experience, and we are committed to providing support and resources for you to maximize your success.

Q. What’s the status of research activities?

A. At present (June 2021), online and virtual research may continue as approved. Researchers who are previously approved to access their on-campus research facilities may continue to do so. Likewise, for previously approved field research (August 2020 to present), researchers currently in other regions or in countries conducting already approved field research may continue if the approved research cannot be delayed, subject to the following:

  • researchers must contact the Office of Research Ethics (ORE) to confirm that they have a current Health and Safety Plan; and
  • researchers must also confirm with ORE that the regions are not under a pandemic advisory that doesn’t allow face-to-face/in-person research and follow all applicable local public health directives and safety measures.

Should the situation in other regions/countries change and local public health directives no longer permit or allow face-to-face research, researchers must suspend their research and notify ORE immediately.

Any questions/concerns regarding safety while conducting research can be directed to Alison Collins-Mrakas, senior policy advisor, by email to acollins@yorku.ca.

Inter- or intra-provincial travel for any human-participant research will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Research that requires other compliance approvals (such as from the Animal Care Committee or the Biological Safety Committee) is ongoing and approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact acollins@yorku.ca for further information.

Q. What about face-to-face research involving human subjects?

A. We continue to work with peer universities to ensure that we are ready to resume face-to-face research involving human subjects as soon as public health guidelines permit.

I should underscore that Alison Collins-Mrakas is working with the Human Participants Review Committee to establish those activities that can be allowed under different public health scenarios. As soon as the relevant restrictions are lifted, researchers (including graduate students) will be able to resume face-to-face research involving human subjects.

Q. What about Innovation York?

A. I am pleased to let you know that all activities supported by Innovation York continue to grow despite stay-at-home orders. Some of the highlights we saw from the past year include:

  • 26 per cent increase in Mitacs Accelerate internships;
  • 43 per cent in research agreements executed;
  • 20 per cent increase in knowledge mobilization projects supported;
  • supported industry-partnered grants with a value of $2.6 million;
  • executed four new licences;
  • supported 179 startup ventures, which raised $16 million in investment, generated $18 million in revenue and created 263 jobs; and
  • supported more than 292 experiential learning opportunities for students.

In addition, our entrepreneurship activities have thrived online, attracting more attendees than we could support in person. As an example, our Founders Fundamentals program, a program that supports individuals in developing their entrepreneurial mindset, saw a 41 per cent increase of attendees overall and a total of 343 attendees for the winter session. We will continue to offer innovation services and programming both in person and online when public health guidelines allow.

I would like to conclude this conversation by thanking our researchers (faculty members, postdoctoral Fellows, research associates and graduate students) for their understanding and patience. I truly appreciate the creativity, perseverance and co-operation of York researchers in maintaining their research excellence in these difficult times. The University is working hard to create an engaging research environment with increased on-campus activities as soon as the COVID-19 situation improves for your continued success and the success of the University.