Investing in state-of-the-art research infrastructure pays off, today and tomorrow

February 25, 2013

When Philippe Schick, the vice-president of engineering at Cooledge Lighting Inc., began looking for a laboratory to help his company make its product market-ready, he considered options across Canada and beyond. In the end, the Burnaby, B.C.-based business discovered that the best place to test its thin-film technology was right in its own backyard. 4D LABS, a collaborative research centre specializing in materials engineering at Simon Fraser University, offered Cooledge a suite of tools and a team of experts that could accelerate early product development and help the company find the right combination of materials and processes much faster and at a much lower cost than it could have on its own.

It can be challenging for companies to move past the idea phase, but at 4D LABS, Cooledge was able to create a prototype and is poised to launch it this spring. And as far as Schick is concerned, the ability for his company, and others like it, to access these state-of-the-art facilities and expertise is helping nurture innovations and move them to market.

4D LABS is one example of the kinds of facilities that have been supported at universities, colleges and research hospitals by Government of Canada investments through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). And it is one that, with its proven track record and blend of scientific and business acumen, received additional funding last month along with 74 other projects as part of a total investment of more than $215 million.

It is important to note that this is funding that was committed to the CFI in 2009 — in the midst of the global economic downturn. By focusing its investments on maintaining world-class research capacity, even during challenging economic times, the federal government has demonstrated its dedication to the belief that economic growth is driven by science and technology (S&T), today and tomorrow.

Consider The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012, released last fall by the Council of Canadian Academies. An update on the Council’s 2006 report, the new assessment found that Canadian S&T is “healthy and growing in both output and impact.” Despite our small population, Canadians produce an impressive percentage of the world’s key research papers; moreover, according to a survey of leading international scientists, “Canada’s scientific research enterprise was ranked fourth highest in the world, after the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.” And in several emerging areas, including wireless technology, nanotechnologies, personalized medicine and energy technologies, “Canada is well placed to become a global leader in development and application.”

This is not the time to stop investing in the leading-edge research that has led to these advances. But now that there are hopeful signs of an economic recovery, we also need to forge new paths and push toward the game-changing scientific breakthroughs that will ensure commercial success in the future. Other countries are also emerging from recession, and they too know the value of investing in S&T. They are our competition in the global innovation business.

Canada is already laying the groundwork to make more breakthroughs and maintain a global reputation in S&T. Another one of the projects funded through the CFI’s most recent competition, for example, involves research by physicists from Saint Mary’s University. They are using the facilities at TRIUMF — Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics at The University of British Columbia — to study rare isotopes. This is basic science at its best, but with the very tangible goal of improving cancer treatments.

As the Council of Canadian Academies report declares, Canada has become a globally important S&T nation. In a wide array of areas, from the mining and forestry sectors to genomics and medical imaging, new ideas and technologies are being developed — ideas and technologies that will create jobs, generate wealth and improve the quality of life for Canadians.

Canada’s capacity for research has given us an advantage. Let’s not lose it.

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 February 25, 2013.