Investing in excellence, innovation propels Canada forward

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The U15 will continue to work with the federal government and all the other players in the research and development enterprise to ensure we reap the promise that a stronger knowledge and innovation ecosystem holds for all Canadians.

OTTAWA—Seminal ideas and game-changing discoveries capable of saving lives, improving processes, inspiring new technologies and growing economies start by investing in talented people and the institutions that support their research. Nations around the world are increasingly pursuing these opportunities by investing billions in excellence at their universities, in programs that attract the best and the brightest faculty and students, and the most promising international partnerships.

With Budget 2014, Canada has joined the ranks of Germany, France, China, and Brazil by investing in excellence to accelerate innovation that is critical to economic growth and global competitiveness. Germany’s Excellence Initiative channels additional funds to its top universities; France’s “Idex” Excellence supports clusters of higher education institutions; and China’s Projects 211 and 985 direct additional money to new faculty, critical areas of research and improved facilities. Make no mistake, we compete directly with these countries, and others, for the people whose knowledge and skills will drive our future success.

With the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, Canada has joined this group of leading nations. The Fund commits $1.5-billion over 10 years to world-class research at universities that will compete to access the money. Combined with the largest investment to Canada’s three granting councils ($46-million) in a decade, as well as $224-million to TRIUMF—Canada’s national particle and nuclear physical laboratory, $15-million to Waterloo’s Institute of Quantum computing, and $8-million to the Mitacs Industrial R&D fellowships, this budget could rightly be christened the innovation budget. 

In addition, Ottawa’s new International Education Strategy will complement the additional funding to help make Canada the destination of choice for international students and faculty. Engaging them in Canada’s research enterprise will help fill critical labour and skills gaps, while giving us the competitive edge we need in emerging fields.

These new investments put Canada’s universities on a solid footing to leverage their key strengths into internationally competitive capabilities and to build on the solid foundation provided by the granting councils, the CFI, research chairs and other high-profile fellowships and scholarships. 

The federal government has also promised to review the Indirect Costs Program, providing an opportunity to redress a problem that disproportionately affects institutions that cover the administrative and commercialization costs, as well as the increasingly complex regulatory requirements, facility, library and technology costs that accompany any research enterprise.

Together, these investments support the innovation strategy universities have been advocating. We know that while our past achievements give Canada a knowledge advantage, we cannot rest on those achievements. Challenges beckon. We need to produce more PhDs, businesses need to employ a higher percentage of our workforce in science and technology, and together increase our overall productivity. 

Universities alone cannot succeed in achieving these goals. Creating a climate that fosters innovation requires a multitude of partners. The federal government supports the granting councils that finance the basic and applied research critical to broadening our understanding of the world around us and giving us the tools to accomplish our societal goals and to resolve contemporary issues. Research universities create the groundbreaking discoveries that start the innovation cycle and conduct applied research with private sector partners. Colleges and polytechnics provide the training and applied research that meets other industrial and commercial needs. Not-for-profit organizations like Mitacs link top research talent with private and public entities that benefit from the researchers’ expertise. And private companies—currently the largest investors in research and development—take discoveries to market and hire our graduates.

Only if all players work together will Canada seize the opportunity that these investments in research and development have given us. Canada’s research universities are ready to play their role as the fulcrums of knowledge creation and the centres for international collaboration. 

In the coming months, as the federal government consults with universities to develop the details of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund it will also release the results of its consultations on the Science, Technology and Innovation Review. At the same time, Canadians will also begin to learn the details of the multilateral trade agreements negotiated with Europe, and Canadian universities will continue to pursue multilateral and bilateral research partnerships. 

Together, we hope these new investments, policies, agreements and partnerships will bring new knowledge and real results home. As representatives of Canada’s largest research intensive universities, the U15 will continue to work with the federal government and all the other players in the research and development enterprise to ensure we reap the promise that a stronger knowledge and innovation ecosystem holds for all Canadians. 

Suzanne Corbeil is the executive director of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.