Own the Research: Canada invests in its international leadership in key areas

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At nearly 37 million people, Canadians make up a tiny fraction of the world’s population. We are a very small group of people in a very large global community of 7 billion people. But we punch above our weight.

In just under 150 years, we have built one of the world’s largest economies, with our prime minister sitting among the core members of the G20 this week in Hangzhou, China. We have developed a public education system that ensures our children are consistently among the world’s most literate and numerate by OECD measures. We share a vast geography and a wealth of natural resources that help to house, feed, and fuel the world.

We may be a small nation and a young one, but we have long taken pride in being engaged members of the global community. We strive to contribute and lead. That desire has been on display in Rio as our Olympic and Paralympic athletes push past their limits against the world’s best.

The performances of individuals such as Penny Oleksiak and Andre De Grasse crystalize Canada’s ambition to excel on the global stage but our athletes are not alone. That same kind of ambition drives Canadian researchers and students in universities across our country to hone their talents and pursue made-in-Canada ideas and innovations. The goal? To conduct research and create education programs that meet the quality and outcomes of the very best in the world.

This week, 13 of Canada’s research universities, including the University of Alberta where I am president, came closer to that podium thanks to historic research grants awarded through the Government of Canada’s Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The size of these grants—ranging from $33.3 million to $93.5 million over seven years—is one reason these grants are historic. However, it is the history yet to be made that really makes these grants exceptional.   

What is the potential? Canada being in the forefront tackling the grand global challenges of this century: mitigating the effects of climate change and achieving environmental sustainability while also ensuring energy, food and water security for communities around the world. Canada making groundbreaking discoveries that unlock the secrets of the brain’s neurological processes associated with memory and vision to improve brain and mental health.

Canada leading the charge in mining the still undiscovered potential of biomedical informatics, quantum computing and big data, research that will impact everything in the future from human health to transportation systems to ecological monitoring and modelling. Canada pushing the frontiers of human knowledge, seeking to understand the fundamental building blocks of our universe through the study of particle astrophysics.  Canada being the country that invents, commercializes, and produces new technologies, industries, products and processes that lead to major improvements in human, environmental, economic and social health.

When the Canadian government announced the establishment of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, it announced its intention to dramatically increase Canada’s research and development capacity. Canadian universities—where the vast majority of Canada’s R&D occurs—were given an Olympic-sized challenge: to develop big ambitious, full-scale research proposals based on existing areas of excellence where we have the greatest potential for increased global collaboration, growth and impact.

What really made this competition different than others, however, was the scope. To succeed, universities had to do more than focus on the strengths of one individual doing exceptional work in one area; we needed to show that our universities had broad and integrated research depth across many teams and disciplines that, taken together, prove our capacity for increasing Canadian international leadership and partnership in key research areas. We were required to prove how we can and will perform to the highest global standards in making new discoveries, ensuring better educational outcomes for our students, and commercializing and translating that new knowledge into tangible, real-world products and innovations for the benefit of Canadians.

You can see from the competition’s broad scope that the ultimate goal of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund extends far beyond the walls of university labs and campuses—far beyond achieving global research eminence. While very important as a motivator to excel, that is a means to an end.

The ultimate goal of these remarkable grants—and that of the universities involved—is to build prosperity for all Canadians. How will this be achieved? Through the multiple benefits that will spin off from these research investments:  cleaner and more sustainable development; healthier communities; the creation of new industries and jobs; economic diversification that ensures the long-term viability of Canada’s economy.

The greatest benefit, however, will be the education and inspiration of our next generation of citizens and leaders, who will assimilate the new knowledge we create together, and with imagination and courage, use it to build a better Canada and a better world.

David Turpin is vice-chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, and president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta.