This is the path of innovation

October 27, 2014

The following op-ed was published in The Globe and Mail October 27, 2014.

By Rivka Carmi, president, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Martha Crago, vice president, Research, Dalhousie University

The economic uncertainty that continues to plague countries around the globe has contributed to an increased focus on innovation and the commercialization of research – and rightly so. Innovation drives prosperity. Unfortunately this focus can lead to the questioning of the value of basic foundational research. That debate, however, presents a false choice—and only by understanding why, will universities’ contributions to the world be fully realized.

In fact, there is no choice to be made between basic research, driven by researchers’ desire and curiosity to explore the unknown, and applied research, inspired by usefulness and driven by need. Foundational research is how applied scientific discoveries get started, and universities cannot encourage innovation without fostering excellent basic research.

To see this in action, consider what happened when, in the 1970s, a Japanese researcher named Osamu Shimomura got curious about a jellyfish species and discovered the protein that makes it glow in colour. A decade later, American biologist Martin Chalfie realized that this glowing protein could help map the cellular structures of living organisms. Subsequently, another scientist, Roger Tsien, discovered how to make multi-colour fluorescent molecules that have technical applications, including mapping the human brain. That work—which developed over 40 years from basic research to fundamental and then advanced applications—won the three men a joint Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. It also illustrates that the path from basic research to innovation is rarely straight. Instead it builds upon both successes and failures along the way.

To say that foundational research is indispensable for scientific breakthroughs is fully compatible with promoting innovation in a variety of ways. Both in Canada and in Israel, universities are helping students and faculty better understand needs in both the public and private sectors, and are supporting their efforts to translate basic knowledge into applied breakthroughs.

Some of the most exciting steps on this front involve training students to become the next generation of innovators. At Dalhousie, for instance, the ‘Starting Lean’ program encourages entrepreneurial thinking in undergraduates—and now some of its graduates are joining the Canada-wide ‘Next 36’ program, which is aimed at turning  top students into the country’s most successful future business leaders and innovators.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s annual innovation day brings together engineering students displaying their final year projects, business school students, industry leaders, governmental figures and private  investors for a full day of innovative scientific, technological (and social) project presentations, discussions, debates and business meetings. This way, students are exposed to the scrutiny as well as to the options of the world outside of academia and industries can look for opportunities to take academic research to the next level of application.

Universities also foster innovation by operating technology transfer offices that help faculty and students commercialize their research applications, develop research partnerships with local and global companies and forge links with nearby science and technology parks.

Another dimension of today’s constrained university budgets and the increasingly international scope of research is the need to collaborate with other institutions on mutual strategic research goals in order to maximize resources.  Because both Dalhousie and a group of Israeli universities, including Ben-Gurion University, have maritime campuses on the Atlantic and the Red Sea respectively, it made sense for us to partner in the development of a world-class marine science site in Eilat, Israel. This is expected to become an internationally recognized Ocean Studies Centre that will attract and educate marine scientists around the world, and will generate basic, applied and industry-partnered scientific advances.

Governments in both Canada and Israel, supported by philanthropists and industries, encourage such connections through the funding of collaborations that help researchers and their students pursue multi-sectorial, multi-country research initiatives.  The need to understand massive, rapidly accelerating societal, technological, and environmental change is why advanced countries need to invest together in basic research and higher education.  That investment will lead to the discovery of where the future opportunities for industry and innovation lie.

As countries, we can learn from each other. We welcome the gathering of university leaders and innovation experts from Canada, Israel and Germany this week in Ottawa to share successes and lessons learned from various nations’ innovation systems and higher education institutions. This policy dialogue, hosted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, will give participants new insights into the strengths of each country’s research and innovation system and facilitate a sharing of promising practices for collaboration.

Underlying all of our discussions, we hope, will be a shared recognition that new discoveries and applications, whether small or revolutionary, begin with excellent basic research. From curiosity about glowing jellyfish to new tools for brain mapping: that’s what the path of innovation looks like. And that is why universities and our partners in government, industry and community must continue to support and nurture the essence of foundational research that is at the very beginning of the innovation continuum.

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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