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Healthy economies need healthy research investment

This op-ed was published in Research Money magazine, and reproduced on the website of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), on December 6, 2012

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said, “you simply can’t build a modern economy without investing in world-class research.”

Our modern knowledge economy depends heavily on research and innovation, both of which require talent, perseverance and funding. Innovation – the search for a new idea, a new way of doing things, a new product – is what allows us to put our knowledge to use and to be competitive in a global economy. High-quality research makes innovation happen. And both take place at universities.

The OECD’s Innovation Strategy and the Canada’s 2011 Jenkins Report demonstrate that universities play a crucial role in driving innovation and prosperity, and for that matter, the health, social well-being and security of nations.

In 2011, Canada’s universities were responsible for 38 percent of Canada’s R&D activities and conducted more than $11.3 billion in research, including approximately $1 billion in directly funded contract research for the private sector. The overall economic impact of Canada’s universities is estimated to be more than $60 billion annually.

What’s more, research and innovation translate into jobs. According to the OECD, innovation accounted for two-thirds to three-quarters of economic growth in Austria, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States between 1995 and 2006.

Innovation also attracts talent. When Canadian universities take a lead in conducting research, we draw bright minds to our country. In recent years, universities have attracted or repatriated more than 450 Canada Research Chairs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs from abroad. Talent follows opportunity.

In this globalized world it’s no longer enough for us to succeed or even excel at home – Canada must compete globally. Nurturing top talent at home and attracting leading researchers from around the world is what will position Canada as an innovation leader.

We have a strong foundation upon which to build. A report by the Council of Canadian Academies recently highlighted the high regard that the world’s most cited researchers have for the quality research conducted in our universities. We can strengthen that reputation by leveraging and growing partnerships between Canadian universities and international institutions, both public and private.

I recently had the opportunity to serve on the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Research Universities, and it is clear that research universities on both sides of the border are working to respond to their changing environment.

The U.S., a long-time front-runner in research and innovation, is at risk of falling behind in the innovation race, due in part to stagnating investment in innovation. Asia’s emerging economies steadily and dramatically increased R&D spending as a percentage of GDP between 1996 and 2007 – Japan’s reached 3.4 percent in 2007, and South Korea’s 3.5 percent. In comparison, U.S. spending remained between 2.5 and 2.8 percent of GDP over the past three decades, while Canada’s was still below 2 percent of GDP in 2007.

In a globally competitive environment, partnerships between universities and the wider community, including industry and civil society, have never been more critical. Countries, institutions and companies need to tap into and contribute to international knowledge networks.

Innovation is, at its core, a creative endeavour. Creativity often means heading down a path without knowing what’s at the end.

Earlier this year, after almost 50 years of searching, researchers confirmed the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle. While there may be no known applications for the Higgs-Boson particle today, the search for it has contributed to discoveries in health instrumentation, diagnostics and treatments, as well as the information and communication technologies that power the Internet.

Innovations and discoveries enrich our daily lives. Research in social science and humanities is increasingly important in our globalized world. Trading with partners in Canada and from around the world requires a deep understanding of history, culture, religion, law, ethics, marketing, supply-chain development and data analytics – research skills that come primarily from social science and humanities programs.

As our government develops national strategies for science and technology, international education and global commerce, Canada’s universities – and their tremendous capacity for talent development, research, innovation and collaboration – will play a key role in our country’s roadmap for the future.