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Can Canada Continue to Foster Globally Important Research at Universities?

By November 8, 2018No Comments

Far from a classroom exercise happening behind the walls of the ivory tower, university research is a fundamental component of Canada’s economic health – both today and into the future.

Some of our country’s greatest inventions and world-renowned accomplishments, such as canola and insulin, have happened on the nation’s university campuses.

Universities in Canada carry the country’s burden of research and invention, and that burden is made heavier by limited funding from private resources. And, while Canada has contributed many significant discoveries to the world through its academic research, it has also received its fair share of criticism, mainly due to gaps in funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) research.

The 2017 Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, reports that, “Despite high levels of talent, expertise, and dedication on the part of those serving each agency, there is evidence to suggest that the overall stewardship of the federal research ecosystem needs to be strengthened.”

But there is hope that change is coming.

This year’s federal budget marked the biggest investment in science and university research in Canadian history, as the government allotted $925-million in new funding for research over the next five years.

Additionally, the federal budget allocated another $275-million for “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk” research, to be selected by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

While the country still struggles with its ability to commercialize its discoveries, there are a few areas in which Canadian university research is world-renowned, chiefly artificial intelligence, genomics and clean technology.

As we continue to thrive in the AI and genomics spaces, the liberal arts and the humanities element can add value, and especially as we navigate the consequences of AI and genomics developments, explains David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto and chair of the 2017 Canada’s Fundamental Science Review panel. “All of the area of health research that involves genes and artificial intelligence is going to raise very important ethical, legal and social issues, so those issues need attention as this whole field unfolds.”

One area that also requires attention is Indigenous research, but that is also improving according to those in the field. Research into Indigenous languages, collecting or quantifying data for fisheries and natural resources, recording information based on traditional knowledge, as well as collaborations with First Nations communities, are now taking place all over the country. It is not only a fundamental part of the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but will also fill a large gap in Canadian research.

Canada’s research environment is experiencing a reinvigoration based on recent promises of STEM and social-science funding, and there can be little downside to this, Dr. Naylor adds.

“There is very little substitute that any society has found for having large numbers of citizens with open and inquiring minds and the ability to ask tough questions and think about difficult answers.”

Research initiatives in universities also offer students an opportunity to enrich their postsecondary learning experience.

“By involving students in research,” Dr. Naylor says, “you give them the tools to address bigger challenges and bigger and bigger problems and you also make them better citizens and [overall] a better country.”