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In our opinion

It’s worth paying attention to research infrastructure

By Dr. Kevin Smith

The recent federal budget’s third largest investment — $1.33 billion — targeted research infrastructure. There has been relatively little discourse around this announcement in the popular press. But the impact of investing in research infrastructure has great implications for Canadians — impact worth understanding and recognizing. 

“Infrastructure” for most people conjures images of bridges, roads and water mains. And much was made of the federal funding set aside for this kind of infrastructure. But what is research infrastructure? These are the tools researchers need to do their critical work. 

These are the powerful DNA sequencers that unravel the genomics of disease and species of trees that are the lifeblood of our forestry sector. These are the state-of-the-art facilities like the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon that have helped advance many areas of science, and serve as vibrant gathering places for the world’s brightest minds. And these are the one-of-a-kind facilities like the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo where physicists are developing the next generation of powerful computers.

While this investment is good for science in and of itself, it also positions Canada to narrow the productivity gap in international competitiveness. These investments, coupled with direct research funding, are highly correlated with productivity gains and with the creation of high qualified personnel. Creating the kind of jobs Canadians want and are prepared to perform among the best in the world. Now, more than ever, a healthy economy and quality of life hinges on a nation’s ability to foster world-class research and translate this important work into benefits at home and abroad.

The Government of Canada is investing in research infrastructure at universities, research hospitals and colleges across the country through the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Importantly, in addition to provinces, this investment is frequently supplemented by the private sector and generous philanthropists who ensure multiparty engagement and alignment. Top researchers from around the world — those who make medical breakthroughs, create profitable new inventions and find technological and societal solutions to pressing challenges — are choosing Canada, in part because our institutions offer them rich research environments that foster leading-edge work. It helps create a healthy ecosystem for scholarship and commerce. 

Research infrastructure is a critical brick-in-the-wall for keeping Canada at the top of global rankings in important areas of research, such as clinical medicine, information technology, physics and astronomy. It also builds on the momentum of Budget 2014, which included $1.5 billion for the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund, another significant investment for ambitious projects that will allow universities to stake their claim as world leaders in particular research areas — and evaluate their success by results. 

This kind of research, bolstered by advanced infrastructure, has innumerable impacts, which I see every day as CEO of a healthcare system. It opens possibilities for the treatment and prevention of disease — imagine how personalized medicine and genomics can tackle intractable problems like chronic pain or cancer. It also propels our industries — think of how 3-D printing will alter the manufacturing sector or how quantum physics could revolutionize computing. It allows us to envision our communities of tomorrow — what would it be like to live in a “smart” city where the traffic lights talk to your phone and the sidewalks talk to the traffic lights?  

For all these reasons and more, $1.33 billion for research infrastructure is a number Canadians should pay attention to, not just for its size — it represents the country’s largest single investment ever made in research infrastructure support — but for how it will ultimately touch each one of us. 

Kevin Smith is Chief Executive Officer of St. Joseph’s Health System in Hamilton, Ont., Niagara Health System and Chair of the Board of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. His commentary appeared in the May 5, 2015 edition of theglobeandmail.com.