This op-ed was published in Maclean’s on December 3rd, 2020.
By the Rt. Hon. David Johnston, 28th Governor General of Canada and Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada
At a time of crisis, countries look to their strengths. We ask ourselves how we can build upon and leverage our assets to get through something as destructive to our physical, mental and economic well-being as the COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, we are fortunate to have many strengths. High on that list, and perhaps most relevant to our response to COVID-19 and our post-pandemic recovery, is our outstanding research and innovation talent.
Signs of this strength are all around us. Among them are the major international research awards bestowed upon top Canadian scientists every year. We like to look at that list, and read these stories, to gauge Canada’s position as an international leader in research innovation. The 2020 list is impressive.
This year, Canada is winning big – including University of Alberta researcher Michael Houghton sharing the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Nobel will be awarded on December 10 from Stockholm – a moment of great pride for Canadians. This most prestigious award recognizes Dr. Houghton’s role in discovering Hepatitis C, which causes 400,000 global deaths a year. His work helped eliminate the virus from the global blood supply nearly 30 years ago.
Dr. Chelsea Rochman of the University of Toronto is another winner to watch. She won the renowned Sloan Research Fellowship for her work on microplastics in water systems. The fellowship will advance her exploration on how microplastics impact ecosystems and relate to other stressors, like climate change. She’ll carry out some of this research at the Experimental Lakes Area freshwater facility in northern Ontario, where she can examine impacts on the whole ecosystem.
Another impressive example is professor Gilles Brassard, Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information Science at Université de Montréal, winner of the prestigious BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences for his ground-breaking contributions to the field of quantum computation and communication. Professor Brassard is one of three scientists who invented quantum cryptography in the 1980s as a means of protecting data communications.
These are just three of 23 Canadian winners of major international research awards this year.
Research of this calibre not only advances science globally, it improves our quality of life and helps drive economic growth here at home. And it’s vital to our emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic. The contributions of top researchers – discoveries they make, teams they assemble, spin-offs they enable – will help Canada emerge even stronger after COVID-19 and secure our position as a research and innovation leader on the world stage.
Canadian research excellence also helps build diversity and inclusion, and that must happen if we are to achieve our potential as a nation in the years ahead. For example, researchers in the humanities and social sciences help us understand the root causes of inequality and the best options for building a more equitable and inclusive future. And the diversity being built into the research ecosystem itself is ensuring we get the best outcomes possible from public investments in research.
In the Canadian context, collaboration is a competitive advantage. We’re quite good at connecting across the country and around the world for the best research and innovation results. During the pandemic, the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network (CanCOGeN) is a great example. This is a coordinated pan-Canadian, cross-agency network for large-scale human host sequencing and tracking. CanGOGen brings together public health authorities, healthcare partners, academia, industry, hospitals, research institutes and sequencing centres to help inform public health decision-making during the pandemic.
Another key to our research success is nimbleness in responding to crises – something we’ve been getting better at in recent years. Rapid response to the pandemic is a good case in point. The government recognized very early in the pandemic that research would be critical to finding solutions from a vaccine to testing. On March 11, the Prime Minister announced $275 million for COVID-19 research and medical countermeasures, part of an initial $1 billion package to help Canadians. Subsequent research investments have both accelerated discovery and sustained research efforts in the face of unprecedented challenges to the research enterprise.
Funding reached scientists quickly, supporting hundreds of initiatives. In addition to crucial work on vaccines and therapeutics, other projects cover a wide range of topics, such as research on efficient antiviral air filtration materials at Simon Fraser University and work on healthcare supply chain innovations at Dalhousie.
Canadian researchers are also helping shape public policy and inform Canadians by studying the pandemic through a social science and humanities lens, including impacts on the economy, cities, workplaces, education, the labour market and social media.
As we navigate these trying times, we must not lose sight of the value of our research enterprise to building a better Canada. We encourage all researchers and innovators to share their story more loudly. It’s important for more Canadians to learn about your work and share in your success.
We all need to do a better job of celebrating role models in research and innovation – an important part of nurturing curiosity in young people. And we need our next generation to see the value of careers in research and discovery. At our universities, research-enriched learning helps make this happen, while also equipping all students for rewarding careers in the rapidly changing world of work.
More crises will come. And this next generation will lead us in navigating them.
Today’s outstanding researchers give them incredible examples to follow.
About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.