University innovation: a transformative force for Canada’s post-pandemic economy

September 16, 2021
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Sophie D

This op-ed was published in The Hill Times September 15, 2021

By Sophie D’Amours, rector, Université Laval and Board Chair, Universities Canada

We need to invest to generate the next wave of disruptive innovation. The risk-takers, the curious, the problem solvers, will take us where we never imagined possible.

Every technological revolution that society has witnessed was preceded by a major global crisis, and each was driven by major public investments. In each case, the distribution of economic power changed.

As we consider what technological shifts will transform our society following massive post-pandemic investments, we must look at further developing and nurturing a culture of innovation in Canada. To start, we need to do a better job of celebrating our successes and ensuring Canadians are proud of new businesses, proud to be the first in a sector, or leaders in a given field. Young people have always been the vanguard of cultural change, so we can turn to colleges and universities as environments with great potential to fuel and reinforce this culture of innovation.

A stronger innovation culture could motivate more companies to invest in research and development (R&D). Countries considered world champions in innovation invest more than three per cent of their GDP in R&D each year. In Canada, businesses are investing less and during the past 10 years, they have reduced their investments by about $1-billion. In 2018 in Canada, investment in R&D amounted to 1.6 per cent of GDP and the share funded by businesses was 42.6 per cent. By comparison, the share of R&D investment by French companies is 56 per cent, German companies 66 per cent, and American companies 62 per cent.

Beyond the need to invest more in business innovation to stimulate a resilient and robust post-pandemic economy, it may be necessary to consider whether fiscal tools such as tax credits, Canada’s primary methods for encouraging business investment, are delivering the expected benefits. Germany, Israel, and Sweden, for example, mobilize greater business participation in innovation through targeted projects with specific missions and direct assistance.

We need to invest to generate the next wave of disruptive innovation. The risk-takers, the curious, the problem solvers, will take us where we never imagined possible.

In terms of knowledge, the ability of universities to carry out their research, to make discoveries leading to the development of new technologies, and to train the people who will be able to develop burgeoning sectors, is essential for realizing innovation’s benefits.

We must also consider investment in fundamental research — the research that will lead the next great wave of transformative in-novation. Given our world’s rate of change, we can expect that in the next 15 years, on a global scale, we will make more discoveries than we have since the dawn of humanity. What will Canada’s role be in that?

As we start to consider life post-pandemic, we must work hard to rebuild our economy and make tough investment choices — choices that will require some risk-taking to increase the economic, social, and environmental value of every job in Canada. The digital shift will structurally affect all sectors in Canada. The contribution of universities in this regard will ensure a faster and more effective transition.

As we transform our economy, we must also make it more sustainable. The fight against climate change cannot be ignored. It is essential we consider the role we play when 30 per cent of the European Union’s massive recovery plan will be dedicated to fighting climate change.

Foreign investors will look at countries that have a skilled workforce and a strong research, development and innovation support capacity. The race for talent will be the gold rush of the 2020s. Without these highly skilled people, post-pandemic prosperity will be unattainable. It is a distinctive Canadian pillar that deserves our full attention.

It is also important to work on inclusion and foster interdisciplinarity to better understand the ethical and social acceptability issues if we want to support the transitions ahead. Too often, significant projects perish because we underestimate the important contributions of the social sciences and humanities. Innovation is about much more than technology. It is the result of human creativity, successful relationships, and a willingness to address societal challenges.

As Canadians prepare to elect their next government, we can consider the opportunity to train, innovate, transfer and transform for the benefit of Canadians thanks to the network of Canada’s 96 diverse universities, serving students, advancing research, and working with communities. We also have the opportunity to develop a real culture of innovation in Canada, to nourish Canadian pride in being leaders, and to make our distinctive strengths known internationally.

Sophie D’Amours is rector of Université Laval and chair of the board of directors of Universities Canada. This column has been reprinted with permission from Policy Magazine.

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Communications manager
Universities Canada
communications@univcan.ca

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