R&D's amazing race

R&D's amazing race McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 8, 2005 - Volume 38 Number 08
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Figures from Momentum

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R&D's amazing race

Racing car

In the global Research and Development race, the federal government aims to push Canada from 13th position into one of the the top five nations in the world by 2010. But because other countries aren't pulling over on the innovation highway to let us pass, it's a pretty ambitious goal. To get there, we need a clear plan — and lots of juice in the engine.

On October 25, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) — an organization representing the interests of approximately 90 universities and colleges — released Momentum: The 2005 Report on University Research and Technology Transfer, the first of a series of reports chronicling the progress universities have made in helping Canada achieve its fifth-place goal and the challenges threatening further gains.

It's an important issue. When research funding dropped during the economic crunch of the 1990s, Canada lost nearly 10 percent of the country's professors to other countries. The tide has turned, but the race for talent is heating up internationally. "Universities need a sustained commitment to research funding and new investments that build on the momentum to keep our best and brightest at home, to convince expatriate Canadians to return from abroad, and to attract international stars," says AUCC president Claire Morris.

"The AUCC gives universities across Canada a strong voice," says Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, a member of the organization's board of directors. "It ensures that higher education and research are priorities for the federal government and underlines the key role that universities play in making Quebec and Canada prosperous."

The Momentum report grew out of a plan the AUCC and the federal government forged in 2002 to bump up Canada's R&D position globally. The feds agreed to double funding for university research over the next eight years and, with that support, universities committed to meet certain targets, such as doubling the total amount of research performed and tripling commercialization from 2000 to 2010.

According to the report, universities are holding up their end of the bargain. In four years, universities have raised research income from all sources by over 60 percent and have more than doubled the income earned from commercializing intellectual property.

In addition to reporting on these targets, Momentum and its website www.aucc.ca feature concrete examples — many drawn from McGill — of how research at universities across the country is improving our quality of life. The discovery of the beta-1 breast cancer gene at the MUHC will give patients new treatment options; the School of Architecture's Grow Home initiative is providing urban couples with affordable, environmentally friendly housing; and McGill's contribution to a study of youth participation in elections is helping the government find ways to encourage young people to vote.

Pointing out tangible results makes a case for continuing resources for research, and Momentum's brief history of Canada's R&D policy and investment also shows how quickly Canada can lose ground if funding is not sustained.

After the Second World War, Canada slowly built adequate support for research, but the economic downturn of the early 1990s sent funding down the tubes. In four short years in the mid '90s, Momentum reports, Canadian universities lost an astonishing 2,500 faculty to greener research pastures in the U.S. and abroad.

Fortunately, the government quickly realized that research and university-educated employees were the foundation of the new knowledge economy. Starting in 1997, the federal government turned the taps back on, with broad-ranging new investment in university research: salary support, graduate student scholarships, new facilities and equipment, operating funding and support for indirect costs. The AUCC estimates that between 1997 and 2004, universities received $11 billion in federal research funding.

While Canada has successfully clawed its way back into the global R&D race after its dismal performance in the early 1990s, the news is not all good. The AUCC estimates that in the next set of global R&D statistics, Canada will likely have slipped in the rankings from 13th to 15th place.

Even with the government's renewed commitment to research leading up to 2010, the top-five goal looks remote. The report warns that the federal government may need to triple its R&D investments for 2000-2010, rather than the planned doubling, to move up in the rankings.

"Canadians are not alone in recognizing the value of universities to their future economic success and social well-being," Morris says. "Other countries rely heavily on their universities to fuel their prosperity and well-being. The global competition for talent and ideas is strong — and it's growing — and our competitors will not stand still and wait for us to catch up."

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