Paul Smith, the new chair of Chemical Institute of Canada Board of Directors, is Vice President of Xerox Corporation and Centre Director of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada. In that capacity he has played a key role in turning this global research facility in Mississauga into a global innovation hub for the development of advanced materials, such as 3D materials and integration and devices aimed at cirtical areas in Industry 4.0. He recently took a few questions from CIC NEWS.

After years of participating with the Board, how did you wind up becoming the Chair?

It wasn’t ever really a plan that I had. But as I interacted with the team around me, it became obvious to them and to me that I could bring a very different — and valuable — background to this post. The Xerox Research Centre of Canada has a remarkable breadth of disciplines and expertise within it — chemists, chemical engineers, chemical physicists, technologists. They all collaborate on common goals, often bringing different insights and skills sets to one another’s challenges. This is a dynamic that mirrors the make-up of the CIC, which is extraordinary to the extent that it oversees this same kind of multidisciplinary mixture. I’m pleased to bring my own experience to this responsibility.

The pandemic is obviously shaping a great deal of what CIC and practically every other organization is doing at the moment, but what are some of the longer-term priorities you are considering, which pre-date the pandemic and transcend its more immediate impact?

The CIC’s long history has made it a powerhouse in Canada. For almost 100 years it has been very effective at developing a professional ecosystem across this Canada, pulling us together and giving large numbers of Canadian scientists a practical identity and a network for collaboration. But even before the pandemic, it was clear that technology, economics, and politics were changing the world in dramatic ways, and doing so at an unprecedented pace. This is especially obvious in the way we work, communicate and interact, as individuals as well as an organization. It has changed the expectations and requirements that members attach to the CIC, which are nothing like they were when it was founded and substantially different from what they were even a decade or two ago. The Future of Work is changing and the CIC needs to adapt to ensure it is at the forefront of this change for its members

All of this creates our leading challenge: how do you make the CIC interactive with the membership? The reality is that the members essentially own and run this organization, and we must respond accordingly if they want new and different things from it. The success of that response could well be determined by changing in the CIC’s basic structure, which remember was put in place in 1921, with the current CIC being established in 1945. Today, in order to respond appropriately and quickly enough to satisfy the needs of our members, innovations in governance and structure need to be introduced. For just that reason, I expect one of the key features of my tenure here to be the work of the Governance Task Force, which will review the organization and provide the guidance we need to usher in these changes. The CIC absolutely needs to retain what’s it’s good at, so this committee’s work will help us preserve the best and introduce the better.

With the CIC and its constituent societies, a great deal of the membership and their activities are rooted in the academic sector, but there are also links with industry and government. What can be done to build up these other relationships?

Academia is important and the CIC needs to maintain its extensive links to this sector. But at the end of the day, a large portion of the student members — as well as a lot of faculty-based members — will find themselves working with small- to medium-sized enterprises of one sort or another. In fact, Canada has some of the highest rates of student-led start-ups in the developed world. Many of our members will also be involved with multinational corporations or the country’s federally operated national laboratories. The CIC must therefore reach out to these organizations and build bridges to them on behalf of its members. This could mean soliciting more industry participation in panels at conferences, or perhaps student-oriented sessions dedicated to start-ups. Here again the Governance Task Force has a mandate to examine how the CIC might be reorganized to make it more open and attractive to these partners, in ways that add value to their operations.

What makes the CIC special for you, and what do you want to make sure people know about it?

In other countries, there are bodies like the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) or the American Chemical Society, which are distinctly focused on chemistry. The CIC is different. As I said earlier, it represents all facets of the chemical sciences in a way very similar to my own environment here at Xerox. For just that reason I have a keen appreciation of the unique interactions that take place at the interfaces between those many facets. These interfaces between scientific disciplines are the places where innovation occurs, which means the CIC is itself better poised to nurture new ideas and inventions. That possibility appeals to me enormously, which is why I enjoy the CIC so much and see its potential and value, but these attributes need to be conveyed to members and especially to prospective members. The CIC stands out and by leveraging its structure and capabilities members can benefit and enable them to stand out, too.