Investing in the future

Investing in the future

July 31, 2006

Universities exist to educate and to perform research—to pass down all the knowledge that we’ve accumulated to the next generation, while developing new knowledge in the process.

I’ve been studying the research and development system in this country for over 20 years, and what I’ve realized is that it’s doing extremely well with years of federal budget surpluses, significant reduction in the national debt, one of the strongest economies in the world, a strong dollar, and very high hopes for the future. We’ve just been through an enlightened decade of government support for research in the university environment through funding mechanisms such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Millennium Scholarships, Canada Research Chairs, and support of indirect costs.

However, I still keep hearing that there is something fundamentally wrong with the university research system in Canada and that universities need to do more commercialization.

In the 20+ year history of Research In Motion, I’ve licensed only two technologies from universities. One was encryption technology and the other was a compression technology. In that same 20 years, I’ve hired over 5,000 students—co-op students, interns, undergrads, graduate students and post-docs. They have created the commercial success of our company. So, if you want to understand how commercialization happens, you need to look at the students who graduate from our universities and colleges each year.

Commercialization happens when we educate the next generation of students with the latest cutting-edge technology and the latest techniques and processes. We inspire them by having them study under and do projects with the very best researchers. Then, when the students graduate, they help build the industry and society of this country.

If you really want to understand commercialization, all you have to do is attend convocation at your local university. At the University of Waterloo we celebrate the passage of the next generation of students into the economy and society twice each year. Armed with cutting edge technology from around the world, the latest tools, the latest techniques and processes learned from working under the very best researchers, they graduate and go on to build the industry, institutions and society of our country. Now that is real commercialization.

But in order to have successful commercialization in Canada, we need to continue and even augment our investment in basic research. Why is it absolutely crucial that we have the best-funded research institutions right here in Canada? Most people think that it’s because we will get helpful discoveries 10, 20, or 30 years out. That’s true, but it is not the most important reason.

The number one reason to fund basic research well and with vision is to attract the very best researchers from around the world. Once here, they can prepare Canada’s next generations of graduates, masters, PhD’s and post-doctorates, including the finest foreign students. All else flows from this.

The researchers will bring to Canada both their research prowess and their standing and contacts in the international scientific community. And the students as graduates will commercialize everything they learn—whether discovered in Canada or discovered somewhere else. They will form the society of our future based on the education they’ve experienced. And, thankfully, some will stay at the university, become great researchers themselves, and perpetuate the virtuous cycle—ensuring that the sacred trust of knowledge transfer continues.

I believe so much in this model that I’ve picked an area of research I believe is fertile for Canada—quantum information theory and quantum computing—and have invested heavily in it. It’s a fresh, green valley just waiting for us to claim. I have put $150 million so far into the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

As Canadians we enjoy a great reputation and great fundamentals right now—a strong economy and dollar, shrinking debt, and a multicultural and tolerant society with open borders. We’re attracting the best and brightest to our universities as students and scholars. As long as we invest in research and focused clusters across Canada, and keep investing in our universities in general, our students will do the rest of the work.

What worries me is that if we misunderstand the virtuous cycle and kick it askew even a little bit, we could make a costly mistake. If we tell our researchers that we’re going to reward their efforts by counting the number of patents they register, we will create a nightmare of secrecy and closed-mindedness.

Let’s think hard about the way that we account for our tax dollars being spent at universities. Let’s always bear in mind the great value of university education and the virtuous cycle of basic research led by top researchers.

Mike Lazaridis is the Founder, President & Co-CEO of Research In Motion; he is also Chancellor at the University of Waterloo.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.