Power in Numbers: FIBRE Initiative Bundles the Best

Heather Lynch

Forest Innovation by Research and Education, or FIBRE, is making its debut on Canada's forestry research scene in a bold attempt to transcend the sector through transformation. Its arrival is welcome.

With a portfolio of four solid research partners and seven research and development (R&D) networks, FIBRE boasts a structure that offers not only knowledge-sharing opportunities, but the occasion to learn from best practices by drawing on the strengths of its partners. There is power in numbers, and the synergies that are expected to develop via FIBRE will ensure all members of the initiative are plugged into the critical components of the Canadian forestry sector.

The Partners

FPInnovations: The world's largest private, not-for-profit forest research initiative. Has more than 600 employees spread across Canada. Brings together forest operations, wood products, pulp and paper and the Canadian Wood Fibre Center of Natural Resources Canada.

Natural Resources Canada: Government of Canada department. Works to enhance the responsible development and use of Canada's natural resources and the competitiveness of Canada's natural resources products. Develops policies and programs that enhance the contribution of the natural resources to the economy and to improve the quality of life for all Canadians.

NSERC: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Supports university students in their advanced studies, promotes and supports discovery research, and fosters innovation by encouraging Canadian companies to participate and invest in postsecondary research projects.

Forest Products Association of Canada: Represents the largest Canadian producers of forest products. The group works to identify solutions to conservation issues that meet the goal of balancing the three pillars of sustainability linked to human activities.

The Players (R&D networks comprised of NSERC initiatives): ForValueNet Network, Value Chain Optimization Network, Bioconversion Network, Lignoworks, Sentinel Bioactive Paper Network, Newbuilds, ArboraNano, and the Innovative Green Wood Fibre Products Network.

The 2008 Federal Budget allocated funding to NSERC for collaborative research that 'contributes directly to the knowledge and innovation needs of Canada's forest industry.' The Federal department will fund the eight networks involved in the initiative. Canadian academic researchers, in collaboration with FPInnovations, industry and/or government scientists and engineers, were eligible for grants to investigate specific projects that supported research driven by technology, that expected results within five years, and contained approaches to research problems that would make use of research facilities and resources available through FPInnovations, government and industrial laboratories and universities. To be eligible for funding, projects were required to have the support of FPInnovations. Priority research areas were defined as energy and chemicals from forest biomass, integrated value maximization, next generation building solutions, next generation pulps and papers and novel bioproducts from forest biomass.

The opportunities

While the research network remains in its infancy, it will be interesting to see if it attempts to leverage its research findings outside of the R&D community. The European Forest Institute (EFI) provides an example of how knowledge-sharing and best practices can translate to policy advice by working within a mandate that views information and knowledge as a pillar to forest policy development, implementation and evaluation. The EFI provides the findings of its science-grounded research to policy makers and institutions and acts as the voice for European forest science. The institute has struck a working committee specifically intended to exchange ideas and views about the future of Europe's forestry strategy and the institute also collects the views of policy makers regarding their needs for scientific knowledge and science-based information and expertise to guide its work. The EFI offers a prime example of how the R&D and policy communities can collaborate to achieve the same goal: a healthy, economically prosperous forestry sector.

As FIBRE gets its legs, another possibility for expansion could be the opportunity to collaborate with international players. While the natural resources, organizational and operational context in which Canada's forestry sector works inarguably differ from its international counterparts, there are countless opportunities to learn from global players. CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research, is a non-profit, global facility dedicated to advancing human well-being, environmental conservation and equity. CIFOR undertakes research that enables more informed and equitable decision-making about the use and management of forests in less-developed countries. Similar to EFI, the facility uses its research and analysis to help inform policy makers and practitioners. With an emphasis on governance, poverty and environmental issues, CIFOR considers pressing questions such as, how can forests be managed in ways that enable the mitigation and adaptation to climate change, how trade-offs between conservation and development can be managed, and how people who depend on smallholder and community forestry can improve their livelihoods. While Canada is in an advantageous economic position compared to many of the regions CIFOR emphasizes (Africa, India, etc), there are clear linkages between CIFOR's work and potential lessons that could be learned at home: climate change remains a top priority for government, industry and individuals alike, the economic footprint of pulp, paper and forestry operations forces an inevitable environmental trade-off for governments and pulp and paper operators, and in the wake of what can only be called a forestry sector crisis in Canada, finding solutions to support communities (both small and large) whose economic foundations have been shaken from mill closures and layoffs, remains a pressing priority. While the opportunity to look outwards abounds, so too exists a chance to adopt a more introspective view. The Family Forest Research Center in the U.S. offers a good example of taking the forestry sector back to its roots with an emphasis on how the health of the industry impacts the individual producer. The FFRC is a collaboration between the USDA Forest Service, the Northern Research Station, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The Centre's goal is to conduct relevant research that helps understand the social and economic dimensions of family forestry in order to promote sustainable forest management that meets the needs of landowners, communities and society. It conducts primary research on the attitudes, behaviours, needs, concerns and demographics of family forest owners across the country, administers the National Woodland Owner Survey (the official census of forest owners in the U.S.), partners with other researchers and disseminates the results of its research and informs forest program design and policy-making.

Industry has been calling for a structure the likes of FIBRE for many years. Its ingress serves as a concrete step towards breaking down silos of isolated research, trials, errors and experience to ensure that lessons learned and best practices will help inform the future work of all the involved partners. Canada's forestry sector has learned a great deal of difficult lessons over the past decade. It is now time to translate these into a more focused, robust and energetic forestry sector. FIBRE has a key role to play in the achievement of this goal; more now than ever.