From Campus to the Four Corners of the Globe: Research Partnerships and the Entrepreneurial University

Delivered to the France-Canada Chamber of Commerce, Paris
Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
March 17, 2009


Thank you, M. Meynard, for that generous introduction. Thank you, as well, to Mme. Florence Brillouin, Director of the France-Canada Chamber of Commerce, and M. Steve Gauthier, Vice-President, Corporate Development of the International Financial Centre of Montreal, for helping to make this event possible. I would also like to thank M. Jean Fortin, First Counsellor, Cooperation, from the Quebec Government Office in Paris, and, from the Embassy of Canada to France: Mme. Sandrine Caduc, Trade Commissioner, Science & Technology; Mme. Sylvie Béland, Counsellor, Space Affairs; and Mme. Orietta Doucet-Mugnier, Director, Academic Relations & Youth Mobility. I am also pleased that Senator Michael Meighen, Marc Weinstein and Sydney Blum can be with us today, along with distinguished alumni from McGill and other Quebec and Canadian universities.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak with you today about the changing face of research partnerships in our hyperconnected world – though things are changing so rapidly that it often seems that “hyperactive” is a better adjective. Mere months ago, the words “global” and “meltdown” conjured images of icebergs, not economies. How do we conduct business in a “new normal” that seems at times anything but normal?

I’m not going to pretend to have answers now for the market downturn, and I’m certainly not going to venture any investment tips, but I would like to speak to you today about how globalization is shaping research and development, the two factors that precede new economic growth.

Most of us are familiar with Thomas Friedman’s description of a “flat” world, in which technology has leveled the global playing field by eliminating traditional geographic barriers. The ease with which knowledge now speeds around the globe means that companies aren’t looking for expertise only in the university down the street or in their corporate R&D labs down the hall, but are searching the world for innovation in knowledge, design of products and marketing strategies. In academia, international collaboration has become the norm – for example, the percentage of scientific articles with international co-authorship has increased more than 300 per cent since 1985.

Even with big ideas traversing oceans in the blink of an eye, building local strengths is still key. As a result, there is a profound tension between the local and the international -- a kind of push-and-pull being played out in the knowledge society. Let me explain what I mean. Urban studies guru Richard Florida, in response to Thomas Friedman’s flat world, coined the phrase “spiky world.” Just as half the world’s population clusters together in cities—or “spikes,” to use Professor Florida’s term—there are also “innovation clusters”—hot spots that excel at both advancing research and bringing those new ideas to market.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s 2008 World Patent Report, over half of the world’s patents in 2006 went to inventors in Japan and the U.S. Of the remaining world patents over 66 per cent were divided over a mere eight countries. What this shows us is that a handful of innovation clusters tower like skyscrapers over the supposedly flat global landscape. It’s clear that in order to develop expertise in a field these days, the best strategy is still to assemble a critical mass of smart people in your own backyard –but if you want to be serious players in the R&D game, you need to connect your clusters.

How do universities drive innovation?

In this local/global dichotomy, universities play a key role in innovation. Strong, strategic and globally oriented universities play perhaps the most important role in society today. They create knowledge by generating research and they serve their regional and national communities by supplying expertise and helping to shape policy. And I am proud, as President of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec, of the strength, diversity and international connections of our university system.

Universities also, of course, most importantly educate students, forming the talent pool needed to drive innovation. That talent pool runs far deeper than just scientists and engineers, as important as they are. The pool also includes the managers, lawyers, designers and experts in culture and language that are absolutely necessary for innovation to flourish in the marketplace.

Increasingly, universities need to focus on supporting the development of global citizens, people who are knowledgeable and comfortable moving freely across cultures and borders, who are scientifically and technologically literate, with nimble minds and tolerant attitudes, open to cultural nuance, and with eyes open to transnational possibilities.

Today’s universities provide the seedbed not just for technology, but for the multiple factors that allow technology to flow across national and cultural boundaries. McGill, indeed, as one example, prides itself on its multilingual, multicultural environment, which attracts the brightest students and professors from around the world, and encourages, not myopic, but panoptic, approaches to living, learning and working together. Our innovative and highly regarded Faculty of Law is a great example of this philosophy, examining all issues from the perspective of both of the world’s great secular legal traditions-civil law and common law. This integrated learning framework fosters critical reflection, tolerance, and a capacity to manage complexity.

While a Quebec university first, McGill’s international character and standards explain in great part why it has been the only Canadian university to be placed in the top 25 institutions of higher education worldwide in the prestigious Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings for five years in a row.

So, ambitious international universities educate, create knowledge and serve communities—what else do they do? Importantly, they connect people. You see this in high-profile international collaborations, such as the Human Genome Project and its scientific offspring, in which McGill, Canada and France have played and continue to play substantial roles.

Such scientific global collaborations are of a scale so daring, so massive, and require such a wide range of interdisciplinary expertise, that it would be impossible for any one institution or industry to assemble the necessary talent or infrastructure on its own. University connection-building also manifests itself in a more subtle, yet no less important way, allowing industry to tap into already established academic and alumni networks.

How is Canada dealing with a rapidly changing R&D landscape?

Now, McGill and Canada’s other research-intensive universities are not the only factor driving Canada’s recent progress on the R&D front, but we have played a significant role. Over the past decade, our federal and Quebec governments have made progressive, creative re-investments in university research funding. There has been a wide-spread recognition that erosion of educational funding would not serve us well. Governments have invested in four pillars – talent, infrastructure, research operations and overhead costs – and all competitively allocated:

  • TALENT: The federal Canada Research Chairs program, established in 2000, and the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program, are designed to attract and retain more than 2000 top research stars to Canada and international graduate fellows.
  • INFRASTRUCTURE: To strengthen cutting-edge research infrastructure, the Canada Foundation for Innovation has committed almost $4.5 billion to date to support more than 6,000 projects at 129 institutions in the past 12 years.
  • RESEARCH OPERATIONS: Over the past decade, federal and provincial governments have increased operating funding through research granting councils and other agencies to provide substantial support for the direct costs of research in health, humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and engineering.
  • INDIRECT COSTS: The federal government has begun to cover a percentage of universities’ indirect costs or “overhead,” though Canada still has a long way to go to keep pace with the U.S.

Government funding is, happily, moving away from a philosophy of regional equity and toward rewarding performance excellence wherever it blossoms–and I encourage France’s own renewed focus on science, education, evaluation and performance.

Ironically, Canada also benefited just a few years ago from the fact that the U.S. has tightened to a stranglehold restrictions on foreign students and professors in its post 9/11 “Homeland Security” mindset. As talented international scholars felt increasingly uncomfortable in the U.S., many of them chose to come to Canada.

All of these factors combined to reverse “brain drain” which had been plaguing Canada since the mid 1990s, when Canada had pulled back dramatically on its investment in universities and international competitiveness. Thus, at McGill alone, we have welcomed more than 860 new professors since the year 2000, all appointed in world-wide searches, with nearly 60 per cent recruited from outside the country from outstanding universities, research institutes and industry laboratories from around the world, and roughly 20 per cent repatriated Quebec and Canadian “stars.”

France’s current passionate debate on improving its higher education and research capacity has not gone unnoticed in Canada because we, too, are facing our own significant challenges in innovation, talent retention and competition for scientific and scholarly resources.

Although Canada has a high level of participation in higher education overall, participation is heavily weighted toward community colleges and skills training, not higher-level degrees. In Canada, only 24 per cent of people aged 25 to 64 have a university degree. In comparison, 34 per cent of the U.S. population boasts a university education, while France’s rate is less than half that of the U.S. – a mere 15.6 per cent.

Canada—like France— attracts and graduates a shockingly low percentage of doctoral students. In 2006, Canada graduated only 48 PhDs per 100,000 people aged 20 to 39; France performed slightly better, graduating 58 PhDs per 100,000—but Germany and Switzerland, to look at two nearby examples, produced 119 and 164 PhDs per 100,000, respectively.

Canada has many areas of great intellectual and R&D strength across our regions, including in my hometown of Montreal: energy and environmental sciences, aerospace and biotechnology, public policy, computational sciences and materials research. But these strengths are not aligned into a robust and cohesive provincial or national strategy.

In Canada, as in France, private-sector investment in R&D is low. Business expenditures on R&D, or BERD, are below the OECD average of 1.56 per cent—in 2006, France’s BERD was 1.34 per cent, while Canada’s was barely over 1 per cent. Canada’s low BERD is largely due to a business sector that skews toward small- and medium-sized enterprises, and which tends to invest less in R&D than our larger U.S. counterparts.

Like France, our performance in innovation – uptake of new knowledge, designs or systems to stimulate economic growth, increase productivity and improve social conditions – needs to improve. Retention of top talent remains an ongoing concern in a world where talent is increasingly mobile. My own colleagues are not greedy for their personal compensation, but have a big hunger to use their talents fully. One of our many challenges is to satisfy that hunger by providing them with the support they need to flourish.

The Future of Research Partnerships

I am a member of Canada’s newly formed Science, Technology and Innovation Council, an advisory body to the federal government perhaps similar to France’s Haut Conseil pour la science et la technologie, and we are working hard to upgrade our government policy framework to create the conditions for success.

How? Earlier I mentioned that international research universities don’t just feed minds, they connect minds. And connection is exactly what I believe we need to focus on.

I can already point to some very successful international partnerships that speak to the power of connection. Researchers at McGill, the Université de Montréal, the Imperial College in London and CNRS in Lille, France discovered that three specific gene mutations significantly contributed to the onset of type 2 diabetes. These researchers are now collaborating with the Grenoble-based pharmaceutical company Mellitech, as well as researchers elsewhere, on possible drug therapies—all less than a year after the initial discovery! As I said at the beginning, today’s world moves quickly.

This kind of partnership of individual universities, research institutions and the private sector is obviously important, but I’m here today to say that it’s not enough. To fully harness talent, to push innovation further than ever, we must broker inspired matchmaking across sectors, bringing together universities, government agencies, industry and communities that can benefit from shared ambition and purpose.

In a recent report, the Conference Board of Canada confirmed the effectiveness of what it called the “triple helix” partnership model: a three-way collaboration among industry, research entities and government designed to pull together fragmented pockets of R&D excellence to build Canada’s capacity to innovate globally.

In today’s world, if you want to achieve local economic benefits, local improvement in health status, security, and civil society, you have to have some specific areas of endeavour in which you succeed at the global level. Connecting a nation’s internal innovation “clusters” or “city corridors” is an excellent start, and we need to apply that same thinking on an international level.

Earlier this year, Canada’s government-funded Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and France’s Agence nationale de la recherche did just that when they signed an agreement to increase scientific linkages between our two countries via collaboration among academic researchers and industrial partners, in both.

Over the past three years, McGill has also been working with key partners to lay the groundwork on a likeminded international R&D collaboration, and a prime example is the one between Canada and California.

Together, we’re pioneering a new type of large-scale international framework, one that networks high-level government, industry and universities in both locations. At the risk of sounding like a fast-food order, or an esoteric figure-skating move, I’ll call this a double triple helix.

The Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership, or CCSIP, is an entrepreneurial collaboration involving the three sectors in two innovation-intensive clusters, which already share a well-established trade relationship valued at more than $35 billion a year.

This is not the usual model of researcher-to-researcher collaboration. The CCSIP partnership champions new models of cooperation and focuses on innovation-intensive areas with market potential that are strengths for both jurisdictions: stem cells and regenerative medicine, information and communications technologies, advanced transportation and energy, nanotechnology, infectious diseases, venture capital, intellectual property and the development of highly qualified personnel.

This direct investment in stimulating joint industry/academic R&D is also a welcome complement to Canada’s too-heavy reliance on R&D tax credit incentives. The CCSIP approach promises to be a timely way for Canada to connect with the Obama administration’s substantial new investments in U.S. R&D capacity.

By going beyond simple R&D to emphasize RD&D – research, development and delivery – and it’s that second D that turns research into innovation – the partnership has formed international working groups on cancer stem cell research and infectious disease monitoring. McGill’s Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations, Denis Thérien, sits on the CCSIP Steering Committee, which was spearheaded by then-Consul General Alain Dudoit, now head of special innovation initiatives at McGill.

This fall, McGill hosted an exciting CCSIP summit focusing on biofuels, carbon sequestration, new media, and green information technology. As a result of the summit, which included senior university, government, and industry leaders from Canada and California, a call for proposals was launched in early December.

I see CCSIP as the future model for of research partnerships because it takes an effective internal national strategy and takes it global. The partnerships revolve around the shared priorities and strengths of each jurisdiction, providing a focus for investment and connection. This makes it easy to quickly identify, and act upon, critical research questions that align with industry needs. Because governments are involved from the ground up, they are highly motivated to smooth out obstacles and adjust policies to speed along results. And perhaps most importantly, CCSIP establishes a network of the most critical players – the organizations and people that, when brought together, are most likely to jumpstart innovation.

What do we need to do?

There’s no doubt the internationalization of R&D yields net global benefits as well as creating local success. According to the OECD, it “creates better conditions for excellent research, avoids fragmentation, minimises R&D duplication” and, in the end, “generates more public and private R&D funding.” With a renewed commitment to competitive levels of accessibility, educational quality and degree completion in higher education, and a re-tooling of our innovation strategies, we’ll be able to significantly advance regional and national capacities, while also fully mobilizing international collaboration.

Necessity is the mother of invention, but crisis may be the mother of innovation. As President Sarkozy recently said, “La crise nous donne l’occasion d’accélérer la modernisation des structure obsolètes et de changer nos mentalités...” So what do we need to do? How can we take advantage of this crisis to change our mentality?

At the beginning of my talk, I joked that I wouldn’t be offering you any investment tips. Actually, I am, and this brings me to my first recommendation. Despite the economic downturn, we need to keep investing in high quality higher education, research, talent and knowledge dissemination. We cannot just invest in roads and construction for short-term economic stimulation – as nations, we have to construct the foundations of our knowledge society.

Secondly, countries need to refocus their innovation strategies, which up to now have been primarily focused on supporting regional innovation with same nation-building-emphasis. I’m a great believer in supporting local clusters and linking them to create city corridors. But now we need to build our innovation strategies to link people, and knowledge and innovation internationally. We need to transform those clusters into cross-sector nodes in a global knowledge and talent network. No cluster can be an island. And here, Canada and France (and particularly Quebec and France) have many opportunities to realize new large-scale partnerships along the lines of the Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership. Using the “double triple-helix” model, we can leverage our complementary strengths in aerospace, information and communication technologies, biotechnology, biosciences and green energy.

Tough times can encourage national protectionism. But now, more than ever, we need to act in a global context. We will move forward or fall back. To succeed we must jump onto a pathway to local success that now winds around the world. That pathway is where we will meet each other. That pathway is where we will provide our grandchildren—yours and mine—with light, and air, and nourishment, and progress.

Thank you.

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