Helping bridge the innovation gap

All stakeholders in Canada’s research ecosystem must evolve to meet the needs of a changing economy
February 21, 2012

The research community should be encouraged that the Government of Canada continues to reinforce its belief that investing in research and development is a key priority for economic growth and job creation for this country. This has been a consistent theme in the government’s economic action plans.

Part of the national strategy to boost innovation has been to invest in a vibrant research ecosystem that includes the federal research funding agencies, the Canada Research Chairs, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the Centres for Commercialization and Research and the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence.

A key part of that strategy has also been to invest through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in the state-of-the-art tools, equipment and facilities researchers need to think big. It is because of these investments that Canada has a synchrotron that delves into the microstructure of materials, a global ocean network keeping tabs on our fisheries and hubs of expertise — from genomics and green technology in British Columbia to stem cells in Ontario, photonics in Quebec and ocean sciences in Newfoundland — that are leading to discoveries and creating economic opportunities for the country.

In fact, CFI investments have transformed the research capacity of Canada’s universities, colleges and research hospitals. Researchers now have the high tech tools they need to address the next big questions.

Since the CFI was created, Canada has managed to turn its brain drain into a brain gain. Canadian researchers rank near the top in the world for peer-reviewed scientific publications and they are reaching out and collaborating with their international colleagues like never before. All of this has been made possible by consistent and strategic investments by the Government of Canada in all fields of research and technology development.

But our challenges will change in the coming years. Canadians will witness important economic, social and demographic changes. The recent global economic turmoil has also strained public finances. The CFI, well aware of these shifts, has been taking stock of its role in this environment to determine how it can continue to help advance Canada’s research enterprise.

It is clear that Canada needs to increase private-sector innovation and improve the capacity of universities and colleges to work more effectively with the private sector. In essence, we need to improve the way we turn ideas into inventions, inventions into products, and products into business. This assessment was recently reinforced by the R & D Review Panel, which stressed that finding better, more effective ways of supporting innovation is vital for the long-term competitiveness of our businesses, and ultimately, our quality of life.

Research infrastructure is fundamental for world-class research and technology development. And it is one of the central knowledge-producing engines that power the Canadian innovation system.

The CFI, along with the federal funding agencies and other publicly funded research support organizations, has a responsibility to grapple with today’s challenges and draw on the talent and expertise of our communities to design effective solutions. For its part, the CFI is looking at how to best capitalize on its previous investments and evolve its funds so they sustain and enhance research capacity at our institutions.

But more than that, we plan to address the innovation gap by looking at how entrepreneurial research can meet Canada’s business needs. In addition, the CFI will help continue to build Canada’s global research influence. Collaborating with international counterparts opens up new research and market opportunities for Canadians and offers made-in-Canada solutions.

We know that the research enterprise in Canada has changed dramatically over the last number of years. We know Canada has established a vibrant research landscape. But we also know Canada has a productivity problem that needs attention. The CFI has an important role to play not only in fostering cutting-edge discovery research but also in creating the conditions necessary to stimulate entrepreneurial research and innovation.

The CFI does not have all of the answers; nor can it act alone to meet Canada’s challenges. All of the stakeholders in our innovation system need to take stock and do their part to ensure that Canada’s capacity for world-leading research and innovation is a national priority.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure.