Taking stock

January 19, 2012

As we enter 2012, the Canada Foundation for Innovation is preparing to mark an important milestone — 15 years of supporting world-class research by funding world-class research infrastructure.

And what a difference 15 years has made. Today, Canada is home to a synchrotron that delves into the microstructure of materials. We have a research icebreaker monitoring our fragile Arctic and a global ocean network keeping tabs on our fisheries. We have established hubs of expertise across the country — from genomics in British Columbia to stem cells in Ontario to photonics in Quebec and ocean sciences in Newfoundland.

In fact, CFI investments have transformed the research capacity of Canada’s universities, colleges and research hospitals. Researchers now have the state-of-the-art tools they need to address the next big questions — to make the key discoveries that will advance knowledge. In the process, the CFI has connected people and sectors to achieve a common goal: to attract and retain the world’s top research talent to translate ideas into innovative solutions that benefit people around the globe.

Since the CFI was created in 1997, Canada has managed to turn its brain drain into a brain gain and has consistently ranked as one of the top countries in the world for research outputs. Canadian researchers are also reaching out and collaborating with their international colleagues like never before. All of this has been made possible by consistent and strategic investments by the Government of Canada in all fields of research and technology development.

But things are evolving. The challenges we faced in 1997 are not the same challenges we will be facing over the coming years. Canadians will witness important economic, social and demographic changes. The recent global economic turmoil has also strained public finances. The CFI, well aware of these shifts, has been taking stock of its role in this environment, and has developed a strategic roadmap to help define where it should be heading in the years ahead, and how it can continue to help advance Canada’s research enterprise.

Various reports have made it clear that Canada needs to increase private-sector innovation and improve the capacity of universities and colleges to work more effectively with the private sector. In essence, we need to improve the way we turn research into innovation, and innovation into enterprise. This assessment has been reinforced by the Government of Canada’s recent R & D Review Panel, which stressed that finding better, more effective ways of supporting innovation is vital for the long-term competitiveness of business, and ultimately, the quality of life of Canadians.

Whether it is electron microscopes, wastewater pilot plants or financial transaction databases, research infrastructure is the fundamental prerequisite for world-class research and technology development. Built in large part through consistent investments by the Government of Canada, research infrastructure is one of the central knowledge-producing engines that power the Canadian innovation system.

As a publicly funded organization, the CFI, along with the federal funding agencies and other research support organizations, has a responsibility to grapple with today’s challenges and draw on the outstanding talent and broad expertise of our communities in designing effective solutions.

For its part, the CFI is grappling with how it can best capitalize on its previous investments and evolve its funds so they sustain and enhance the capacity at research institutions.  

The CFI is mandated to support the entire innovation system, and it fulfills this mandate by investing in the research infrastructure necessary for Canada’s leading researchers to discover, develop and apply new knowledge in all areas of science, the humanities, health, engineering and the environment.

The strategic roadmap highlights how the CFI will continue to do what we do best: support the fundamental research that is the foundation of Canada’s innovation system. But to fulfill our entire mandate, we also need to broaden our support to help that system respond to today’s challenges.

In particular, the CFI’s roadmap identifies three specific areas of opportunity where research infrastructure funding will continue to have the same kind of transformative impact it has had on the Canadian research and innovation ecosystem over the past 15 years. Moving forward, the CFI plans to:

  • optimize Canada’s research capacity by supporting more effective and efficient use of our infrastructure assets;
  • help universities, colleges and research hospitals attract top global talent with the cutting-edge facilities, labs and equipment they need to discover and innovate;
  • help address the innovation gap by looking at how entrepreneurial research can meet business needs.

And equally important, the CFI will help continue to build Canada’s global research influence. Collaborating with international counterparts, Canadian researchers can draw talent and knowledge that increases domestic research and innovation capacity. These collaborations also open up new research and market opportunities for Canadians and offer made-in-Canada solutions.

We know that the research enterprise in Canada has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. We know we have established a vibrant research landscape. But we also know we have a productivity problem that needs attention. The CFI has an important role to play not only in fostering cutting-edge discovery research but also in creating the conditions necessary to stimulate entrepreneurial research and innovation.

The strategic roadmap has allowed us to contemplate what we have accomplished and look ahead to see how we can approach the future with our partners and stakeholders in Canada’s research community.

The CFI does not have all of the answers; nor can it act alone to meet Canada’s research and innovation challenges. But by taking stock and defining its strategic directions, the CFI is doing its part to ensure that Canada’s capacity for world-leading research and innovation is a national priority, and that Canada is rightfully known as a destination of choice for the world’s leading research talent.

The CFI roadmap is available online at innovation.ca. The deadline to submit comments on the roadmap is February 16, 2012.

Dr. Gilles Patry is President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the country’s only organization dedicated to funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure.​