It has been 25 years since the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) opened its doors, filling an essential role in our country’s research ecosystem. In supporting researchers by building the labs, providing the equipment, and creating the environments they need to make discoveries and innovate, the CFI has always invested in the promise of a bright future.
More and more, we see that this future is now.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic. It has taught us many lessons, but none more important than the power of science and research. The solutions required to combat the virus and its variants were discovered by brilliant researchers. This achievement was the result of years of work that identified the genetic makeup of viruses. This information had to be translated into vaccines, which were then tested, mass-produced, packaged and distributed safely. This example of research and discovery matching industry and enterprise has inspired governments around the world to focus on the power of science and research to lead to social and economic recovery.
Reviving our economy and restoring a healthy state of normality in communities around the world are excellent goals which can be attained with special attention to the linkage between science and industry. One might call this the “idea supply chain,” which goes from idea to research and discovery, and links directly to manufacturing and marketing.
While we focus on these immediate goals, we must not forget the longer term that involves not only the future of science, but also the future of our world. Beyond the economy, we must think of the grand challenges we face such as access to clean drinking water, food security and climate change.
We can take pride in the fine work of researchers like those at the Cégep de Sorel-Tracy where environmental industrial processes eliminate or recycle waste materials. Pure water supplies are being studied at Waterloo, Calgary and Carleton universities, and at Lethbridge College, researchers are working to reduce waste from harvest to table by 20 percent. Small and large research projects across the country will converge to make a significant difference in the environment and can combine with economic development projects to create a renewed and much greener economy.
By changing the way we do science, we will open doors to new discoveries and innovations. Creative models for teaching, learning and research, like Nokom’s House at the University of Guelph, which will incorporate Indigenous principles in land-based research, help bring Traditional Knowledge to the fore. Partnerships across disciplines, institutions, regions and nations will provide the means to change perspectives and gain insights. When we reimagine research spaces and become more inclusive, we broaden our horizons and potential for valuable immediate and long-term discoveries.
While we embrace new concepts, we must also think about possible impacts that may well change our lives and livelihoods. For example, if robotics enable rapid testing of greater numbers of samples in laboratories, we will need more data storage and experts in data analysis. The lab technicians who ran the tests may now have to prepare more samples and gain different, but equally valuable, skills.
Similarly, many of us discovered how effectively we could study and work at a distance as the pandemic took hold. Now we are learning some of the side effects of isolation and too many hours before a computer screen. In labs the CFI has funded, researchers are currently refining and testing new discoveries and their impacts on the way we live and work.
Our legacy should not be a future filled only with problems for the next generation to solve. We must dream of the most extraordinary possibilities for science and exploration. Whether it is researchers at York University who are exploring green manufacturing in outer space or a team in Victoria imagining the sequestration of carbon under the ocean floor, we must encourage curiosity-driven research that will identify the unknown and offer us new possibilities for future life.
Years of focused research are showing spectacular results. A year ago, Michael Houghton was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contributions to discovering the hepatitis C virus in 1989, which enabled antibody testing, saving thousands of lives. His team has now developed a vaccine for the virus currently in pre-clinical testing. Other early projects supported by the CFI have laid the groundwork for rapidly evolving fields ranging from artificial intelligence to quantum computing.
CFI-funded facilities continue to welcome researchers, attract and retain young people and bring the best in the world to Canada. We have seen steady growth and extraordinary achievements and are confident that while we work together to rekindle the economy with innovation from research and synergies with industry, we can contribute to solving the challenges the world is facing. We can provide the sparks for the discoveries that will lead to a better future today.
This piece by CFI CEO and President, Roseann O'Reilly Runte, was published in a supplement in The Globe and Mail on November 19, 2021. A version of it also appeared in French in a special insert in Le Droit on November 13, 2021.