“Research universities are at the heart of the Innovation Agenda”

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In recent months, the Government of Canada announced a bold vision for a national innovation agenda. Framed by six key priorities that clearly underline the leading role of post-secondary education in driving innovation – priority areas include global science excellence and world-leading clusters and partnerships – the ambitious project led by Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains is not just exciting, but inspiring. It’s 21st century nation-building — a fact underscored by the collaborative Innovation 150 initiative celebrating innovation in Canada from our nation’s founding — and Canada’s research-intensive universities are key architects. What’s more, this national effort will help translate a strong coast-to-coast consensus on innovation’s importance into a concrete plan of action.

We know innovation is central to Canada’s future success. Advanced economies like Canada’s rely on innovation and productivity to drive growth. And to remain a top destination for talented immigrants, for investment, and for students, our innovation infrastructure has to be world-class.

Creating the conditions for a world-class innovation ecosystem — like ease of doing business, scientific excellence and high rates of entrepreneurship, all of which are part of the nascent strategy — is a challenging policy objective, to be sure. Innovation ecosystems are thriving, dynamic communities that are infinitely more complex than any single innovation.

The federal government’s consultation on the innovation agenda is therefore a critical step in getting the agenda right — every Canadian has a stake in the strategy’s success, and everyone has an important and unique perspective to help inform this national undertaking.

Our view at The U15 is that Canada’s innovation agenda distils down to a few key themes: talented and knowledgeable people; generating the kind of ideas that will lead to wins for Canada in today’s knowledge economy; and building dynamic regions where innovation clusters convene the networks and resources necessary to drive prosperity.

Canada’s research-intensive universities, represented by The U15, contribute substantially to all of these areas, by:

  • Developing the best and brightest talent to help Canada meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow, which are defined by complexity and multi-disciplinarity;
  • Generating and mobilizing research and technology to increase quality of life for Canadians and blaze new trails for society and industry;
  • Anchoring innovation clusters from Vancouver to Halifax, where cutting edge research and human talent development form the nucleus of dynamic, prosperous, regions.

For these reasons, Canada’s emerging innovation agenda is both a validation and a challenge for Canadian universities. It’s a validation because it clearly recognizes that universities are central to driving prosperity and innovation in 21st century economic conditions. And it’s a challenge because our PSE sector — and research intensive universities in particular — is being called upon to help lead the way forward for Canada’s future as an innovation leader, and to collaborate with our industry and government partners in new ways.

To be our best, and to play the pivotal role envisioned for us by the Government of Canada, Canada’s research-intensive universities need to engage energetically with one another and with our federal government partners. We need to ensure our critical infrastructure and scientific priorities are well supported, and, equally, that our efforts to build a talented and adaptive workforce are aligned with the needs of Canada’s regions and our strategic and emerging industries. Our engagement and advocacy with the federal government over the 2016-2017 timeframe will be pivotal to successfully defining the roles and expectations for PSE within Canada’s exciting new innovation agenda. The U15 is working to deliver on that objective, through formal and informal consultations with government and other strategic initiatives.

The role of research-intensive universities in Canada has never been so dynamic, nor so central to Canada’s national identity and priorities. Together, we’ll more than live up to this enormous opportunity to serve our country.

On a quick personal note, it has been my distinct honour and pleasure to serve as Chair of The U15 over these past two years. Working together with my fellow executive heads and with our outstanding U15 secretariat, we have helped to ensure strong conditions for our member universities while providing professional and credible advice to the Government of Canada. I look forward to supporting my successor to this post — watch U15.ca for an announcement in this regard before September — and to continuing to support my colleagues in my ongoing role as president of the University of Waterloo.

Feridun Hamdullahpur is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, and outgoing Chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.