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Going global: Canadians reaping the rewards of international research collaborations

By Dr Gilles Patry

Federal and provincial investments over the past decade or so have created such a strong research foundation that Canada is now garnering the attention of both research and industry partners from around the globe. By fostering a rich research environment in our universities and colleges that brings together highly talented researchers and state-of-the-art labs and facilities, Canada is attracting outstanding international collaborators.

And as a result, Canada stands to reap significant benefits — from increasing our own research and innovation capacity to opening up global research and business opportunities to offering Canadian expertise in meeting some of the world’s most challenging issues. Along the way, it is also creating jobs for Canadians.

Not long ago, the global research community often passed Canada by when searching for top quality international research partners. While individual Canadian researchers were respected for their abilities and accomplishments, many foreign research organizations generally regarded their Canadian counterparts as lacking the depth and breadth of support needed to be truly competitive at the international level.

Things have changed. Canada is now considered a vibrant, creative and well-equipped research powerhouse that has become a destination of choice for talented researchers — and now, for leading research institutes from other countries.

Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Europe’s largest applied research organization, made up of 67 institutes and an annual research budget of €2 billion, has established two keypartnerships in southern Ontario. At Western University in London, for example, a long-term partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology was established in 2012 to create the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research. This state-of-the-art facility develops new technologies and lightweight materials for the automotive, transportation, construction, defense and renewable energy sectors.

At the heart of the facility is an enormous 2,500-tonne moulding press, built in Windsor ON. The machine allows Canadian and German researchers to incorporate fundamental composite science with industrial-scale process and material innovations to address real-world manufacturing challenges. Researchers and their students work at the cutting-edge of materials science, while helping to invent the lightweight parts that will be incorporated into the next generation of both Canadian- and German-built automobiles. In the end, Canada will have more fuel-efficient cars and a more competitive auto industry.

Down the road in Hamilton, McMaster University announced in April a collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology to build the new McMaster-Fraunhofer Project Centre for Biomedical Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing. Although the new centre will create up to 100 high-paying engineering and scientific jobs, the more substantial pay-off will be in the development of innovative technologies to automate production for cell therapies, significantly lowering the cost to treat degenerative diseases such as cancer. Controlling health care costs and creating high-quality employment are top priorities in Ontario, making this international partnership a double win for citizens.

The international collaboration that was established in 2011 between Université Laval in Quebec City and France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique — one of the most accomplished research organizations in the world — aims to measure the impact of environmental change on the Arctic Ocean ecosystem and will reap benefits for Canadians on a large scale. The research focuses on biological communities and processes at the bottom of the Arctic food chain, which ultimately fuels all marine animals.

The core objective is to invent and install an Arctic observation system based on new remote-sensing technologies and to develop, validate and use diagnostic and predictive ecosystem models to help anticipate the impacts of climate change and of new human activities in the North. These high-tech tools, and the knowledge they deliver, will help Northern communities better face the daunting challenges of managing and adapting to the rapidly changing Arctic environment.

These are a few of the dozens of recent international research collaborations that have developed across the country. But it doesn’t end there. International research collaborations provide value not only through the technologies and new knowledge they create, but also by educating the next generation of Canadians and giving them the global perspective they need to succeed.

Last year, the Government of Canada’s Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy outlined why, in a knowledge-driven economy, international education is key to building prosperity and capacity for innovation. The panel pointed out that, in today’s increasingly integrated global economy, Canada needs to educate highly qualified and skilled people who can compete with the best in the world. International engagement helps current and future generations of Canadians develop a global perspective, which is of significant strategic importance given our country’s increasing involvement in international markets and geopolitical affairs.

As well, international students who have studied here return to their home countries and become advocates for Canada, opening doors to more foreign partnerships. A well-conceived international education strategy could help address demographic and labour-market issues, create jobs and increase exports and investment. In addition, ensuring the next generation of Canadians — the very people who will build the prosperous society we all desire — has a solid understanding of the world and is able to both contribute to, and take advantage of, a complex global community, will produce meaningful, long-lasting value for Canada.

Establishing international collaborations with the best researchers in the world, however, does not happen by accident. It requires sustained, long-term investments in people, research institutions and the research infrastructure that makes world-class science and technology development possible. Canadians believe in the importance of sustaining their investments in research at world-class levels and over a longer time horizon. In doing so, the ongoing development of Canada’s research capacity will continue to send a clear signal to our international collaborators that Canada is in for the long haul.

Dr Gilles Patry is  President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. This comment appeared in the November 28th 2014 issue of Research Money.