Canada’s research institutions have a clear message: working together is more important than ever

May 6, 2019

Research and innovation constantly evolve. As our knowledge and technological capabilities change, so too do the breadth of our inquiries and the ways we approach them.

That is why the Canada Foundation for Innovation makes a point of reaching out to researchers, government leaders and members of the public for their best thoughts on the future of research, discovery and innovation.

Five months ago, we began fanning out across the country to hold 16 town hall meetings where we heard from more than 500 people representing over 130 different organizations. We collected another 72 written responses.

In this cross-country conversation, we heard firsthand what our stakeholders envision for the future of research and research infrastructure in Canada. The insights we received were thoughtful, constructive and revealing. The very fact that so many people participated, and so enthusiastically, is evidence that the Canadian research community is engaged and that they have important messages for us.

Of all the themes we discussed, what dominated the conversation was a universal commitment to excellence and a widespread adoption of the concept of “convergence” in research, where people come together across many disciplines to solve some of the major challenges we face in the world today. We heard about researchers working together in teams and sharing equipment across cities and the country, and about research teams reaching out to collaborate with colleagues from around the world.

We were encouraged to hear this, but also not surprised. We see evidence of collaborative spirit in many of the projects we fund, large and small. In fact, we recently studied some of the facilities we have funded through our Major Science Initiatives Fund, which supports large, complex facilities like SNOLAB in Sudbury, or Ocean Networks Canada’s observatories off the west, Arctic and east coasts.

These facilities, by virtue of their size and broad capabilities, are powerhouses of convergence, attracting researchers from around the world and across many disciplines, while drawing partners from the private sector. At the Canadian Light Source, for example, you might run into a geochemist from a mining company looking at process by-products in the morning, and share a coffee break with an expert in forensics in the afternoon. On the decks of the CCGS Amundsen, you are as likely to rub shoulders with a sea-ice scientist as you are with a researcher in human health.

We found that proper support for operating these large science projects enables them to partner with industry, attract international talent, and ultimately produce benefits ranging from advance tsunami detection and warning to the creation of improved composite materials for the aerospace sector or the development of a new drug to treat prostate cancer.

So convergence is happening, and it is working. And although we understood from our feedback that we have a role in making it easier for these kinds of connections to take place, there was also agreement that it cannot be forced since the most fruitful partnerships come about naturally.

We also heard again and again about the significant potential of smaller universities and colleges. These institutions are closely tied to the towns and cities where they are located, and have a powerful capacity to translate research directly into benefits for those communities and the small and medium businesses that are critical to their economy. While their research projects do not necessarily have the same funding needs as those at larger universities, we heard several suggestions for ways to better serve them.

These insights are priceless for our future planning. The CFI has always embraced the value of broad consultations with those we serve. Turning what we heard into meaningful programs to realize a shared vision for research and research infrastructure in Canada is the work that now lies before us.

Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which invests in state-of-the-art facilities and equipment in Canada’s universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions. Check over the coming months for more about what we learned during our pan-Canadian conversation on the future of research and research infrastructure in Canada.