Canada needs research to build a bold post-pandemic future

Canadian researchers have ideas that could take our country from the lows of the pandemic to the summits of success. These ideas need our attention and support.

From day one of the pandemic, Canadians have relied on scientists for guidance in an uncertain world. A recent survey conducted by the Logit Group suggests that nearly 80 percent of Canadians trust scientists — a figure higher than the level recorded by the same survey taken in January.

The pandemic, and Canadian researchers’ immediate response to it, have solidified the research community’s crucial role in helping to get us out of this crisis. Working to find a vaccine, to learn about how COVID-19 affects the human body, or to study how this pandemic has influenced every aspect of our lives, Canada’s researchers have taken centre stage as our guides and our source of hope.

The future will be no different. We will not only need research to get us through the pandemic but will also need it to help our economy recover.

Researchers are trained to think outside the box. In response to the pandemic, researchers at SNOLAB, a research facility located two miles underground in a mine in Sudbury, Ont., where scientists, including Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Art McDonald used their know-how in particle physics to collaborate on an international effort to design an easy-to-manufacture ventilator. During the pandemic, researchers at McGill University and the University of Toronto developed an innovative tool to help social workers support children and teens who are vulnerable to domestic abuse. And a team at the University of Victoria and its industry partner, Valley Acrylic, are developing a coating for public sinks that will repel the virus that causes COVID-19 and reduce its spread. A successful economic recovery will need equally bold ideas and innovative thinking.

Canadian researchers have ideas that could take our country from the lows of the pandemic to the summits of success. These ideas need our attention and support. For example, Canada is a leader in artificial intelligence and quantum science, thanks to researchers’ creative thinking and visionary investments from government and industry. We must now leverage these investments and continue to fund research across the spectrum to help Canadian businesses take advantage of this expertise, to become more competitive in the global market and to create jobs. Instead of exporting our research, we should help it flourish right here at home.

We need to build the economy in new ways, which must, at the same time, be green and contribute to the health and welfare of our communities. Today, the currency of successful economies includes investments in research and innovation.

In recent conversations with researchers and academic leaders from across the country, I have heard many ideas of how to secure a better future for Canadians.

They included bringing together ocean scientists from every coast so they can find ways to harness the ocean’s energy, while ensuring it remains a viable habitat for marine plants and animals, and to enhance marine transportation while reducing pollution.

Scientists said that Canada’s critical mass of expertise in quantum science would benefit from a national network, strengthening our quantum technology landscape.

We could combine our leadership in precision medicine with our strengths in genomics and neuroscience (to name but two fields) and lead the world in biomedical research.

We should also continue to support our theoretical physicists who are trying to define the matter in black holes, to provide some answers to the nature of our universe, create new technologies and jobs, and perhaps even earn Canada a Nobel Prize.

Let us be a country that continues to value research and that makes innovation a feature engrained in our lives.

We have an extraordinary community of researchers that has the capacity and drive to succeed and that requires our support to respond to the challenges of this day and the future. Canadians have demonstrated repeatedly that we can come together to solve problems from economics and health to the environment and cultural and technological development. Despite our small population spread across a vast land, we have shown that we can cultivate our most precious resource: what writer Northrop Frye called “the educated imagination.”

Canada is a nation of innovation. Let us recognize this fact, inspire our researchers and invest in their creative potential. We can accomplish this by looking for opportunities to work together to plan for the future, to leverage the investments we have made to date and to identify the resources that will make Canadian businesses competitive as they translate the knowledge created by our researchers into a better future for all.

Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte is the fifth president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a non-profit organization that invests in research infrastructure in universities, colleges and research institutes across the country. She is the author of numerous scholarly works in the fields of French, comparative literature, economic and cultural development, and is a recipient of the Order of Canada.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill Times on Monday, September 28, 2020.