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In our opinion

Research in Canadian universities and colleges is a national success story worth celebrating

By Gilles Patry, President and CEO, Canada Foundation for Innovation

It’s National Science and Technology Week and in Ottawa, we need look no further than King Edward Avenue to see a recent example of why Canadians should be celebrating science in this country. From the sidewalk, you can see Canada’s only accelerator mass spectrometer, a 44-tonne state-of-the-art piece of equipment that allows researchers to date items such as ancient artifacts and geological features using very small samples. The building in which it sits, the Advanced Research Complex (ARC), and the research expertise within the facility walls, will position the University of Ottawa as a global leader in the study of photonics and a powerhouse in geoscience research. 

Scan the country and you’ll find many other examples of Canadian research at our universities and colleges that is considered the best in the world. The University of Victoria has the globe’s most powerful microscope; Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute is among the world’s foremost centres for theoretical physics; Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network monitors the movement and survival of marine animals in oceans around the world. Global leaders in genomics, aerospace, clean energy and cybersecurity are working in the hallowed halls of our institutions, and renowned international research institutes such as Max Planck, in Germany, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique from France, are setting up shop on our campuses to collaborate and gain valuable insight from our researchers.

But this wasn’t always the case. Back up 20 years, and you can see how far we’ve come. In the mid-1990s, Canada was experiencing a “brain drain” as researchers left for the U.S. and Europe where they were getting more support. Now, the world’s best and brightest are attracted by Canada’s growing international reputation and its advanced research facilities. Take, for example, ARC’s Robert Boyd, a global leader and pioneering researcher in optics and photonics, who joined the University of Ottawa from the U.S. as a Canada Excellence Research Chair in 2010. He is working side by side with Paul Corkum, the internationally acclaimed physicist who recently accepted the Harvey Prize — often seen as a precursor to the Nobel Prize.  

The question is, do most Canadians know how good we have it when it comes to research in this country?

Sometimes it can be hard to decipher. There’s no shortage of rankings and reports that try to measure how well Canadian research is faring: many are positive, but we often hear more about those with a negative slant. And while there is some truth to these evaluations, when we talk about research in Canada, we must look beyond the negative narratives that so often make the headlines. Otherwise, we risk losing sight of all the ground we’ve gained. If we allow that to happen, we put at stake public support for the kind of research funding that will continue to propel Canadian science and technology even further forward.

So during this National Science and Technology Week, when science centres and schools across the country will be marking the nation’s many scientific achievements — the discovery of insulin by Toronto’s Frederick Banting and Charles Best in 1922, the theory of plate tectonics articulated by Ottawa’s John Tuzo Wilson in the 1970s — let’s not forget the incredible advances we are making today at our universities and colleges. By celebrating Canadian science we can begin to inspire the next generation of researchers and innovators who will inherit and evolve our world-class, made-in-Canada research system.

Dr. Gilles G. Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, This opinion piece originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen’s website on October 15, 2014.