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Research and innovation: vital to Canada’s new economy

February 22, 2010

Canada has the fiscal capacity to make decisions now about supporting research and development that will enhance our competitive position and lay the foundations for growth, health and prosperity in the decades ahead, and to position Canada internationally

By Heather Munroe-Blum

This op-ed was published in The Hill Times on February 22, 2010

Heather Munroe-Blum is chair of the Standing Advisory Committee on University Research of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University.


There is a growing worldwide consensus that countries which invest strategically and competitively in education, research and innovation will emerge from the global recession in a better position to lead on economic and social development.

World-class research at Canadian universities and research institutes and the talent we foster, are the lifeblood of global knowledge societies. They feed innovation and generate cutting-edge discoveries that drive economic, social and cultural growth and thus improve our quality of life nationwide. Our university scholars and researchers are developing the next generation of innovators, discoverers and community leaders who will ensure that economic growth is sustained and that civil society flourishes.

Universities represent a $30-billion enterprise in Canada, employing more than 150,000 people and generating a substantial economic impact in communities, large and small, across the country. In 2008, Canada’s universities conducted more than $10-billion worth of research and development for the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, in addition to substantial cultural, public policy and design contributions. We, in Canada, pride ourselves on our strong social values and we require the economic productivity necessary to support and act on them.

The recent economic downturn has threatened continuing growth in research investments across all sectors. But it is vitally important to remember that research is not a luxury. Continuing to invest in leading, transformational research, scholarship and innovation is central to the advancement of Canada’s place in the world.

And, as last week’s Conference Board of Canada report on innovation underlined, this country needs to do more to support research and innovation if we are to keep pace with others that have made gains at our expense. Again this year, as it has since the 1980s, the Conference Board gave Canada a “D” grade, despite some progress observed over previous years, and it explained the importance of innovation.

“Despite a decade or so of innovation agendas and prosperity reports,” the Conference Board said, “Canada remains near the bottom of its peer group on innovation, ranking 14th among the 17 peer countries. … Canada’s low relative ranking means that, as a proportion of its overall economic activity, Canada does not rely on innovation as much as some of its peers. Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs.”

The knowledge generation at our universities affects the everyday lives, and futures, of Canadians; it helps us grow healthier food, advance new treatments to combat disease, make transportation more environmentally friendly and safer—and even contribute to our partnership with Haitians as they manage the devastating social and psychological effects of the recent earthquake.

In Canada, there has been increased investment in research and in highly-qualified and prepared citizens and this has paid dividends across the country. But the world is changing quickly and, as the Conference Board and others have noted, we are falling behind. A recent study from Thompson Reuters predicts, for example, that India’s research productivity will be on par with most G8 nations within seven or eight years and is positioned to overtake them by 2020. Canada, it is very clear, can find ways to do more than ever before to develop, attract and retain top talent, and to take advantage of our relatively good position in managing global economic assaults.

Economic stimulus efforts, such as the 2009 federal budget’s Knowledge Infrastructure Program, have helped place Canada well to emerge from this recession to resume expansion. The federal government’s $2-billion contribution to upgrade research and teaching facilities at universities and colleges across the country has been an essential component to maintaining a healthy and productive research environment, and the investment in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs positions Canada to lead in key research fields of importance at the world level. In order to leverage fully the opportunities created by these programs and the federal granting councils, it is now critically important to continue to support world-leading research and scholarly programs.

In its report to government, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council stated: “…investments in science, technology and innovation will help us ensure that we bounce back quickly from the current global economic downturn. … Now is the time to up our game.”

The House of Commons Finance Committee’s report, released late November 2009, said the government should “increase its support to research through federal granting councils and research agencies as well as for the indirect costs of research.”

Canada’s universities are committed to ensuring that our research and scholarship contribute to effective economic, social and health progress for the country. We want to do more. Universities contribute by generating the kind of creative and innovative research and graduates that will drive Canada’s future. Indeed, even in the midst of the recent downturn, jobs for university graduates have continued to expand, with 104,000 more university graduates employed in December 2009 than in September 2008 – while there were 410,000 fewer jobs in the rest of the labour force.

As Canada emerges from the downturn, we face strategic choices. Notwithstanding understandable constraints, Canada has the fiscal capacity to make decisions now about supporting research and development that will enhance our competitive position and lay the foundations for growth, health and prosperity in the decades ahead, and to position Canada internationally as a model of progressive society.