A bold vision from twenty years ago is more relevant than ever

November 22, 2016

The creation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 1997 stemmed from a bold vision to transform an ailing research system in this country. Twenty years later, the organization that turned dilapidated, makeshift labs into world-leading research facilities is more relevant than ever.

In the late 1990s, the problem was clear. Canadian research was in trouble because a history of under-investment in research infrastructure meant our best minds were prevented from querying the cutting-edge questions that would allow them to lead their fields.

Many looked elsewhere. Many left. “Brain drain” became a household phrase. At the time, I was dean of engineering at the University of Ottawa, and I witnessed an exodus of our brightest researchers. It was a problem that had all Canadian university presidents worried. The talent and reputation of their researchers was their biggest selling point. How could they compete when their key assets were heading for the door in droves?

A confluence of political will, fiscal opportunity and dire need brought to fruition the idea of an organization dedicated to funding research infrastructure — state-of-the-art equipment and facilities that our researchers needed to think big, reach higher and help our country lead in the new knowledge era the 21st century promised.

The creation of the CFI by the Government of Canada was in itself an experiment to set Canadian research on a new path, and it worked! We’re not playing catch-up anymore; we’re setting the pace.

Look at the international scientists who flock to Dalhousie University’s Ocean Tracking Network and the University of Victoria’s underwater ocean network observatory to access unprecedented information about marine species and insights into pressing issues like climate change. Look also at the burgeoning Toronto-Waterloo corridor where an incredible concentration of research and training institutions and tech companies have made this part of Ontario a hub of talent and discovery, and an excellent example of how clusters of capability and expertise can be engines of innovation.

The ultimate measure of our success, of course, is the difference our research endeavours have made in the quality of life of Canadians. That research builds communities is a simple truth we see reflected in our work every day, and which is brought into focus in this publication through the stories and images of Canadians whose community has benefited in some way from research.

While some of our problems of two decades ago may have been solved, a slew of new challenges replace them. To name a couple: How can we support and position young researchers for success? And how can we turn our now-world-leading research into innovation more efficiently and more consistently?

Sustaining our commitment to investing in world-leading research and research infrastructure is, without a doubt, part of the answer. Research infrastructure evolves rapidly. The machines of yesteryear quickly become obsolete; better, faster, more powerful research equipment lets researchers probe deeper, look further, ask trickier questions and get answers more quickly. Because, as any scientist will tell you, each new insight, development or innovation merely opens a door to the next most compelling question. Having the best equipment to answer the queries of the future is an ongoing effort.

More than that, the young researchers who will find answers to those questions are more globally-minded, more connected and collaborative, and more mobile than ever. We learned our lesson at the end of the last millennium — if we don’t provide the opportunities our research leaders seek, they will look abroad. With a new generation of researchers, this might be more of a risk than ever — all the more reason to continue to set our sights high and keep building our hard-won, world-class research enterprise.

In a recent blogpost, Bill Gates wrote “Science is the great giver — and we’re just at the beginning of what it can give.” The 20th anniversary of the CFI has provided us with an opportunity to look back at what we’ve built and to reflect on the resonance of that work with Canadians. When you consider where we started, it’s impossible not to feel a great sense of accomplishment for how far our research community has come. But what is truly breathtaking is where we can go from here.

This op-ed by CFI CEO and President, Gilles Patry, was published in a supplement in The Globe and Mail on November 22, 2016. A version of it also appeared in French in a special insert in Le Droit on November 19, 2016.