How can we continue to transform Canadian research? Look to the new generation

Earlier this fall, during one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, a group of graduate students was testing the resilience of roofs in full-…

Earlier this fall, during one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, a group of graduate students was testing the resilience of roofs in full-force winds at Western University’s Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes. It’s unlikely they’d call themselves lifesavers, but their work will lead to better construction practices and building codes and they are a critical link in developing technologies that could protect many families from the next battering of storms.

Meanwhile, Penelope Kostopoulos, now a professor at McGill University’s Centre for Integrative Neuroscience, recalls going to her first lecture when she had an “aha moment” where she discovered what would become her life’s passion: understanding the human brain and mental health. Today, she’s still driven by that compulsion to solve problems, and she shares that enthusiasm and knowledge with her students.

These young people have one thing in common: access to top-of-the-line equipment on which to hone their skills and become passionate about their work. And this has greatly contributed to their capacity to contribute to the health, safety and prosperity of our nation.

The potential of the new generation has not been lost on our policy makers or the public. Two reports commissioned by the Government of Canada which were released this spring share one common idea.  The Path to Prosperity report by the Government of Canada’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth focused on delineating strategies to accelerate economic growth in Canada, while the Investing in Canada’s Future report by the Advisory Panel on the Federal Support for Fundamental Science looked at how to strengthen the foundations of this country’s research and technology development ecosystem. Each noted the importance of providing Canadians — particularly younger Canadians — with modern skills and knowledge to be productive in their workplaces and in their communities. 

This past summer, Universities Canada, with the help of Abacus Data, conducted a study of what Canadians think of university research. Eighty-four percent of respondents see it as vitally important for Canada’s future, and 80 percent have great confidence in the talents of the country’s young people.

Canada is primed for another transformational moment in research, one that fully recognizes the potential of the student rank.

But there’s something else at play as well. This new generation understands the possibility that comes with knowledge and are often driven by altruism. They have come of age in an era shaped, more than anything else, by the miracles of technology that the human mind can produce, and a broad sense of community that emanates from a vastly expanded ability to communicate and a greater connection to people and cultures from around the world.

Whatever the reason, I hear this spirit of giving back echoed in every lab I visit. Young people say the reason they are dedicated to their studies is not “I want a better paying job.” It is “I want to contribute to my community. I want to find a cure to cancer. I want to find a better way to provide energy that does not compromise the environment.”

There’s no question that we need to support their work. Some 30,000 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows access research infrastructure funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation every year. And most of their supervisors — 92 percent of them — have reported to us that state-of-the-art research equipment has a high impact on the quality of the training environment. We need to keep making sure they have the best tools and the support required to operate them.

Labs across Canada are humming with young people who are optimistic and motivated. They see a future they want, and they intend to create it. They are also curious, ambitious, innovative and collaborative problem solvers. And as research funders, if we can encourage their quest and trust in their ideas, then this country’s new crop of scholars will profoundly change the world as we know it, and for the better.

Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

This originally appeared in The Hill Times on Wednesday, November 22, 2017.