Smart move

Smart move

September 16, 2009

Many Canadian industries are being battered by the global recession, but perhaps none as hard as forestry. Layoffs are devastating this sector, which contributes two percent to Canada’s overall GDP and employs 300,000 people — more than twice as many as the auto industry.

Stemming the tide, say wood experts, demands a shift in focus from shipping raw lumber to building higher-value, environmentally friendly products at a premium price that will create more Canadian jobs.

This, of course, requires innovation — the kind that bright minds such as Philip Evans has brought to Canada.

Originally from London, England, Evans was ensconced through the 1990s as a professor and director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Science and Engineering of Materials, in Canberra. But by 2000, he says, years of underinvestment in universities was taking a toll.

Considered a world leader in wood science, Evans was approached by the University of British Columbia (UBC) to direct its Centre for Advanced Wood Processing. But he struggled with the move because of Vancouver’s high housing prices and uncertain employment for his wife Katrina. When UBC offered tuition for his three children and helped his wife find work (she is now UBC’s director of corporate and foundation relations), he warmed to the idea. Then the clincher: the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which convinced him that this country is serious about investing in higher education.

Evans moved to Vancouver in 2001 and served as director of the centre until 2007. He continues his work today as the B.C. Leadership Chair in Advanced Forest Products Manufacturing Technology, endowed by the B.C. government and a consortium of private-sector companies.

“The CFI funding [matched by the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund] was a very important part of the jigsaw puzzle that induced me to come here,” says Evans.

This funding allowed him to purchase and use imaging devices that precisely measure the surface topography of wood, which led to the development of new ways of reducing swelling, the Achilles heel, says Evans, of wood products. Using his results, a Canadian company is launching a new, more durable composite wood panel product to compete with products made by American companies.

And it looks as if Evans, recently offered dean positions in Australia and the United States, is here to stay. His current position, he says, gives him valuable R & D time, and additional CFI funding will help him acquire new equipment for surface-material analysis.

“Now that my lab is up and running and my research is having real-world impacts,” says Evans, “it’s making it more difficult to leave.