Innovation: a desire to make things better

October 7, 2016

How can Canada set itself on the right path for fostering a strong research and innovation system? It’s a pressing question — one that occupies countless boardroom discussions and newspaper columns, and has given rise to the development of a new innovation agenda for this country and a review of federal funding for fundamental science.

But even as we scrutinize the mechanisms by which we support research and innovation in Canada, we should take the time to reflect on the ways innovation touches all our lives.

In this knowledge era, innovation is integral to nation building and there is almost no limit to what research can teach us. In the broadest sense, both research and innovation are driven by the desire to make things better.

This audacious vision is what inspired the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 1997, and as we approach the 20th anniversary of our organization, we are taking a moment to reflect on what two decades of capacity-building for Canadian research has enabled.

Our innate drive to comprehend and change our world for the better transforms us in ways we sometimes are not even aware — from our health, our economy and our planet, to how we understand our past and how we envision our future.

Take Albert Leyenhorst and his son, Logan, for example. They are second and third generation dairy and cash crop farmers in Dalmeny, Sask. In nearby North Battleford, the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Feed Research Centre is developing new ways of processing grain by-products to make feedstocks that are better for milk production, for the good of both grain and cattle farmers. The Leyenhorsts test those feedstocks on their farm, and reap the benefits of keeping on the cutting-edge of their industry.

Or consider Samantha Knapp, mother of six children in Kingston, Ont., two of whom suffer from a rare genetic disorder that causes severe seizures in newborns and infants. When Knapp’s eldest daughter Asia started having seizures as a baby, very little was known about this condition. It was a frightening and isolating experience. With the help of many doctors, including Kym Boycott at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, the Knapp family was able to find a diagnosis for both Asia and her little sister Sienna, who suffers the same symptoms. Knowing what was at the root of her children's illness was the piece of information Knapp needed not only to manage the disease, but also to find a community of support among parents sharing similar experiences.

A few years ago, the CFI adopted the tagline “Research builds communities” and it couldn’t be more apt. Community, after all, is built of many things: the physical spaces around us, the roads and communication lines that connect us, the beliefs and policies that guide us, and the desire to reach out, to be supported by others, to understand our neighbours, to help.

Research, ultimately, is one way we do all of these things better. In the social sciences and humanities, we delve into what makes us human and what drives us, so we can know ourselves better. In the physical sciences, we query the rules of nature and ask, “How can we put these to use for the good of us all?”

Two decades ago, the CFI was itself an experiment — a way to encourage researchers to reach higher, think bigger, and a moment in time when political and research leaders came together to create a turning point in Canadian research by building world-class facilities and stocking them with state-of-the-art equipment.

The results have been transformative. In the outcomes of the thousands of research projects supported by the CFI since its inception, the breadth of ways in which innovation changes our world is made real.

But this doesn’t come about by accident. Making smart investments in areas of strength for Canada has proven to be a wise approach. We see clusters of expertise arising across the country — like the thriving optics and photonics sector in Quebec City, or the exciting marine research sector in Halifax, Victoria and St. John’s. These become the underpinnings of strong local economies and a highly trained workforce, the tendrils of which reach far into our communities.

To continue to generate these successes, it is critical that all players work together to foster a culture of innovation in Canada. After all, that innate desire to make things better is much more than an impulse — it is the driving force behind economic and social prosperity.

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. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Hill Times on October 3, 2016.