Research is a contact sport

In a world where the biggest challenges facing humanity are global in scale, there is a need, more than ever, for research to be conducted as a “…

In a world where the biggest challenges facing humanity are global in scale, there is a need, more than ever, for research to be conducted as a “contact sport.” When researchers team up to generate new ideas and tackle fundamental issues like food security, sustainable energy and climate change, they are better able to reach their goal: to formulate hypotheses, make discoveries and find solutions. By sharing resources, ideas and knowledge, scientists can more effectively advance research that addresses societal needs, and in the process, foster innovations that can lead to economic development.

After decades of sustained investments in our research institutions, Canada now has the talent, the expertise and the state-of-the-art infrastructure in place to attract international research collaborations that are making significant contributions to addressing these kinds of global challenges. Indeed, these kinds of collaborations may be one of the most effective ways to boost innovation and sustain economic growth.

Take the challenge of food security. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately one billion people, mostly in developing countries, rely on fish as their primary source of protein. And worldwide, seafood production has doubled since the mid-1990s to meet growing demand. Accurately tracking ocean species is critically important for determining how to continue to meet the demand in a sustainable way.

To address this need, scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax developed the Ocean Tracking Network, a global research platform that traces the movements and monitors the habitats of aquatic animals with a mission to foster the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s oceans.

On Canada’s West Coast, the ocean floor is crisscrossed with the high-tech cables and sensors of another ocean monitoring system based at the University of Victoria, Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), which provides researchers from around the world with live images and comprehensive data from the bottom of the sea. These two ambitious research projects serve as hubs of collaboration, where national and international researchers are sharing ideas, information, discoveries — and technologies.

Technologically complex, these projects require sophisticated engineering expertise. Extensive collaborations have developed between researchers, who have advanced equipment needs, and technology engineering companies, which have the know-how to provide them. In fact, one of the objectives of the Ocean Tracking Network is to foster technological innovation in marine telemetry systems and to communicate these advances to the global scientific community. It has teamed up with a number of companies to develop smaller and more powerful telemetry devices. These companies benefit from the collaboration with national and international research teams and, in turn, sell their improved products around the world.

Ocean Networks Canada has also built innovation into its core mission. At its Innovation Centre, researchers and engineers continuously improve the cabled sensors and marine observation systems that were developed for the network. These innovations are then translated into global business opportunities. The centre links commercial customers with scientific and engineering teams to install and test similar systems for resource management and natural disaster warning in other regions. The global market for such systems is forecasted to be worth some $6 billion in the next few years.

The next big global challenge facing Canadian researchers is to help determine how to safely explore and exploit abundant natural resources in the Arctic without damaging the fragile ecosystem.

The soon-to-be-built University of Manitoba Churchill Marine Observatory will involve building two giant saltwater pools where oil spills can be simulated in sea ice on demand to investigate how they will impact marine environments. Many of the technologies required are just now being invented. When completed, the facility will be a gathering place for researchers from around the globe and a breeding ground for innovation.

In a world where global challenges require global collaboration, researchers who approach their work as a contact sport will be well positioned to find the solutions that not only benefit society, but may also have economic rewards. And Canadian researchers are already seizing these opportunities. 

Dr. Gilles G. Patry is the President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure. This commentary appeared in the November 9, 2015 edition of The Hill Times.