This op-ed was published in Policy Magazine on October 30, 2020.
By Paul Davidson, president and CEO of Universities Canada
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a sudden realignment happened both socially and economically whereby essential services were redefined by a combination of necessity and virtual viability. In that new context, Canada’s universities became an essential public service based on knowledge, information and solutions. Our scholars have provided context, our experts have enlightened the perils and stakes, and our researchers are at the forefront of the global quest for a vaccine.
When the impact of COVID-19 spread and the world turned inward, Canada’s universities reached out. From makeshift workspaces our undaunted faculty, researchers and students bolstered connections with contacts and research partners around the world. We concentrated our best minds on the world’s toughest problem.
It’s what we do. We create alliances and partnerships of shared purpose to address the challenges facing the world. Given our international links, universities were among the first to anticipate the pandemic’s potential impacts. As early as January, many of Canada’s universities had response teams in place.
The results show that, compared to our international peers, Canada is uniquely positioned. Our universities have taken strong safety measures to prevent and minimize campus outbreaks and have been able to welcome international students and researchers back to their work and studies. Our research and higher education systems are maintaining forward momentum at a time when counterparts in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom are being derailed by outbreaks and political tension.
In mid-March, when we first began to understand the scale and severity of COVID-19, universities quickly transitioned 1.4 million students to online classes in a matter of 10 days. Administrators moved as many students as possible out of residences to stop the virus’s spread, while continuing to provide accommodation for those with no alternative. As students headed home, universities made vacant rooms available to front-line workers who had to live away from their parents, partners and children to protect their families from illness.
All but the most essential on-campus activities stopped, but the work continued. Universities stepped up to embark on wide-ranging, interdisciplinary projects to inform the clinical and public health response under the federal government’s $1.1 billion pan-Canadian Medical and Research Strategy.
Research and innovation are the foundation of Canadian universities’ strength in times of turmoil and that strength is an essential pillar of Canada’s pandemic response. At the heart of the federal government’s CanCOVID research network are 2,300 members – researchers, policy makers and front-line technicians – working in partnership to tackle this massive societal challenge. This transdisciplinary network is a shining example of how Canadian research can underpin a holistic, swift and effective response to a long-term public crisis.
Across Canada, university research teams are hard at work to inform clinical and public health responses, develop and evaluate diagnostic tools and vaccines, and tackle misinformation.
Université Laval’s Infectious Disease Research Centre is developing experimental COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The Centre is led by Dr. Gary Kobinger, who received a Governor General’s Innovation Award in 2018 for helping to discover a treatment and vaccine for Ebola. A University of Saskatchewan study may shed light on how coronaviruses jump to humans and other animals. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, with partners in France, are examining how public health measures, such as social distancing, affect the longer-term social and mental health of those under 30. The results could help with policy and program responses to improve the lives of youth in both countries.
Canadian universities are also mindful of their responsibilities and commitments in their home communities. The University of New Brunswick has launched Catalyst, through which local businesses submit COVID-19 recovery projects and UNB students work with faculty and researchers to respond. In Ontario, Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business has partnered with the City of Kingston to create a support network to help local businesses, not-for-profits, and social enterprises navigate the new economic environment.
In the early days of the pandemic, as labs closed, campus researchers donated and sourced critical PPE and medical supplies. Trent University, for example, donated several thousand pairs of gloves, coveralls, boot covers, surgical and N-95 masks and hospital gowns to the Peterborough Regional Health Centre. University of Manitoba scientists did the same, delivering much-needed supplies to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Through this, universities’ commitment to deliver high-quality education to all learners was unwavering. Faculty and staff have been exceptionally adaptable in the face of a public health crisis when the most natural, human part of their work –teaching and engaging in person – has suddenly become the exception. In just months, we have seen tremendous changes and advancements in online and distance education – changes that were quietly spreading across institutions but were then accelerated by the realities of the pandemic. Faculty members have accounted for multiple time zones, sometimes limited Wi-Fi connections and increased mental health concerns among students, who now form learning communities from across the country and around the world.
They’ve found ways to create enriched experiences from home. For example, McMaster University’s Faculty of Engineering collaborated with Quanser, an educational innovation company, to develop software that could bring interactive lab experiences to students through virtual reality and gaming platforms. First-year engineering students are now learning technical skills in virtual labs. The platforms allow for student collaboration to address challenges in areas such as autonomous vehicle design.
Other campus supports, such as mental health services and student employment counselling, have also been moved online. The early signs of this digital transition are promising and stand in contrast to experiences elsewhere. Continuing to support students and continuing to gauge their digital experience will be important to ensure the success of the next generation. It’s clear that the pandemic will be with us for some time, and universities will continue to put the health and safety of students, staff and faculty first.
In a labour market that demands on-the-job skills from even new graduates, universities are working with partners to provide innovative opportunities. At Athabasca University, the Faculty of Business now offers a virtual work-integrated learning experience, powered by artificial intelligence, to provide learners with exposure to practical business projects in a virtual setting.
Still, we can’t pretend the situation is normal – not for anyone. Our system is strong, but the resilience of individuals, institutions and communities is at stake.
Before COVID-19, Canada’s innovation ecosystem faced some key challenges. We had been doing well on research and education but falling behind in the corresponding industrial R&D, innovation and economic development. We are under-leveraging academic knowledge in Canada, particularly in the private sector. At a time when Canada must marshal all its resources for recovery, we cannot afford to let the innovative ideas and intellectual property produced by universities sit on the shelf. We can avoid that either by introducing new mechanisms and networks, or by scaling existing approaches that are proven to work well.
For example, we could scale up the Lab2Market project, delivered through Dalhousie University, Memorial University and Ryerson University. With the support of industry mentors and funding, it helps researchers commercialize their technology. A new project cohort, focused on the pressing needs of health, is providing tools and expertise to researchers so they can get vaccines, therapeutics, devices, virtual and digital care tools and diagnostic tools to market faster than previously possible. Lab2Market is supported by a patchwork of funders across the country but could be scaled nationally to great effect.
We could also establish new university innovation hubs, recognizing the important role of universities as anchor institutions in their communities – especially in smaller, rural communities. Hubs like these accelerate technological advances, thereby promoting the growth of small and medium enterprises in surrounding regions.
We know that investing in university innovation pays dividends for Canadian prosperity. Take the work of University of Toronto researchers James Till and Ernest McCulloch, who in the 1960s demonstrated the existence of stem cells. With subsequent rounds of major investment in regenerative medicine, Toronto’s swiftly expanding biomedical industry has become a magnet for global talent and business, thanks in large part to consistent investment in the research foundations of this sector.
We see today how investment in stem cell research has fueled job growth and innovation in Canada. Similar advances in genomics, artificial intelligence and machine learning trace their roots to discovery research. The cycle times from discovery to adoption are telescoping to speeds of which Till and McCulloch could only dream.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that investment in research and innovation matters: medical research will find a vaccine, social research will impact human behaviour, and history and economics will teach lessons from the past and chart a course for the future. We can’t know what today’s discovery research will yield for the challenges of tomorrow.
Canada can’t afford to allow COVID-19 to disrupt higher education and research. We need the students who will graduate in 2021 and beyond ready to tackle the challenges we face well past the pandemic – climate change, inequality and the many future problems we can’t even imagine today.
The work must be done. The new innovators must have room to learn with the best. We’ll need them ready when the world reopens, so that Canada emerges stronger than ever.
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.