Science, technology, society: universities at the forefront of innovation

August 30, 2016

This op-ed was published in the September/October 2016 edition of Policy magazine.

By Robert Proulx, president, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Canadian universities play an instrumental role in developing a dynamic innovation system to provide for Canada’s social, economic and cultural advancement. Universities above all others are institutions that nurture the key ingredients of innovation: acquiring new knowledge, comparing ideas, seeking solutions, fostering inventiveness. As Canada strives to address the challenges of today and tomorrow, it must be able to rely on its universities. This means adopting a more global view of innovation and, first and foremost, supporting research across all fields of knowledge.

Now more than ever, Canada’s development is contingent on its capacity for innovation. The federal government has placed innovation at the core of its strategy to ensure the country’s economic prosperity. For several years, it has been investing increasingly significant sums in applied research with strong economic potential – research which is likely to maintain and increase the competitiveness of Canadian businesses in a globalized market.

Although the economic impact of these investments is undeniably beneficial, innovation cannot be reduced to economics alone. It plays a much more fundamental role. Even the most advanced technological invention cannot be a source of innovation if it fails to prompt some transformation of social practices.

The social dimension of innovation is even more striking when we consider the many issues that mark the 21st century. From global warming to the phenomenon of radicalization, and from population aging to the ongoing reconciliation with First Nations, these challenges require innovative solutions that may not necessarily create economic value but which remain critical for societal development.

In light of these issues, the government must adopt a broader perspective that places the social purpose of innovation front and centre. Such a vision is critical to Canada’s ability to secure its future.

In order to realize this vision, the contribution of Canadian universities is key. Universities are rooted in their communities, they are windows to the world, they conduct applied and fundamental research and they develop knowledge. Our university campuses are the main point of convergence for the forces that will arm Canada with a dynamic innovation system to help our communities face collective challenges and build the society of tomorrow.

Innovation is a breakthrough that leads to social progress – it is a new, often unexpected and sometimes bold response to a need. Whether it comes in the form of a product, technology, service or policy, innovation transforms social mores. The innovation process usually results from the cooperation of various actors who pool their knowledge and expertise. Universities inherently share all these characteristics, making these institutions key players in innovation.

Canadian universities are publicly funded. They are a common good that directly or indirectly benefits all of society. This means that their primary role, i.e. preserving, creating, transferring and disseminating knowledge, is both a scientific and social mission. Accordingly, a key element of the university mission is to contribute to the scientific, cultural and economic development and well-being of communities. Through their training, research and creation activities, universities develop a culture of knowledge where we not only think about the world, but also transform and reinvent it.

Universities enjoy a long tradition of being gateways to the world. They cooperate frequently with diverse partners—businesses, for example, or cultural, social and educational communities—thereby promoting the mobilization and pooling of knowledge. This interaction between the needs of the community and academia, between theoretical and practical knowledge, is essential for the emergence of original, innovative solutions that address today’s challenges.

While embedded in their communities, universities are also globally connected. This international dimension is equally critical for innovation. Canadian researchers are involved in a multitude of international research networks that place them at the forefront of knowledge. Given that many of today’s issues—climate change, human rights, peacekeeping and mounting social inequality, to name only a few—transcend geopolitical boundaries and require concerted efforts, this global knowledge sharing is vital.

These local and international roots, founded on the diverse relationships that universities build with their communities, position the academic world as a unique and effective vehicle of innovation.

Universities are places where critical thinking, invention, imagination and daring flourish. By continuing to push the boundaries of knowledge, challenging accepted notions, exploring original fields of research and combining approaches from various disciplines, universities are an inexhaustible source of the expertise and creativity that are central to the innovation process.

Innovation, whether scientific, technological or social, is not a linear process. It cannot be predicted, programmed or planned. It is the product of progress and setbacks, trial and error, successes and failures. It may result from an accident, an unexpected combination of old and new knowledge, or a fruitful encounter between researchers from disciplines that do not usually work closely with each other. It often comes from where we least expect it.

A robust innovation system relies on its actors being free to pursue research and work whose potential cannot be immediately grasped but is likely to help respond to tomorrow’s needs. Academic freedom and university autonomy give universities and researchers a unique space to perform impartial research whose impacts are not immediately apparent.

Canadian universities are fully equipped to play a central role in innovation. By working with social actors and leveraging their knowledge and expertise, they can inform decision-makers about educational, cultural, economic or social policies. They can also help local communities overcome the challenges they face and find innovative solutions to major transnational issues. And of course, let us not forget that universities are eminently positioned to promote economic development.

For the academic world to fully realize this potential, however, a clear commitment is required from all involved. First, we need universities themselves to commit to putting their social mission at the heart of their strategic planning. They must continue to open up to their communities and work together to keep their distinctive culture of innovation alive.

For its part, the government must demonstrate leadership by making innovation a national priority and recognizing the fundamental role played by Canadian universities. It must regard innovation as the key to not only economic growth, but also the well-being of society as a whole. It must adapt its policies accordingly and provide universities with the wherewithal to develop a strong innovation system. This means continuing to support applied research, of course, but especially investing more heavily in fundamental research. In both cases, we also need to support the fields of knowledge, including humanities and the arts, whose contribution to innovation is vital, if not always tangible. This is a prerequisite for Canada’s collective advancement.

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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