This op-ed was published by Policy Magazine March 15, 2023
By David Johnston
“If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can…” the expression goes. You can fill in whatever earthly frustration you like. That first trip to the moon more than 50 years ago changed our thinking as inhabitants of this planet. Suddenly, anything seemed possible. While the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research contemplates a Canadian-driven moonshot, we would do well to think about whether we are fully equipped to achieve whatever the next audacious goal might be.
Consider what it took not just to land on the moon but to explore space in the first place – a sense of wonder, yes, curiosity too, and a determined commitment backed by government investment and international collaboration.
Canada’s involvement started long before the development of the Canadarm, Marc Garneau’s Challenger flight to space and Chris Hadfield’s work as commander of the international space station. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, Canadians were the first to record its beeps.
Having a global perspective is a pre-requisite in nearly every field today. Two years after those Sputnik beeps, then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had a conversation with then-American President Dwight Eisenhower, communicated historically by a radar signal that bounced back from the moon.
Our bilateral conversations haven’t stopped. We’ll see President Joe Biden visit Ottawa this month to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. How we get along with our neighbours, near and far, matters. We have years of diplomacy as evidence of the value of talk in peace and collaboration. We don’t prosper in isolation. The president and prime minister will have plenty to discuss during their visit. They might consider what it will take to achieve not just the next big thing but to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
While it is true that “moonshots” capture the imagination and can marshal resources and a sense of national purpose, for them to succeed you need a solid platform or launchpad. That means investing in discovery research and in the two-way flow of students and researchers at an international scale.
Well beyond our connections with the United States, international partnerships and collaborations start by building a network and understanding the world. It’s why our leaders meet. But head-of-government meetings are not the only place for collaboration. Canada’s universities welcome students and researchers from around the globe who bring with them perspectives, experiences and outlooks from more than 150 countries. On an international scale, Canada has become the fourth most-popular destination for international students (behind the US, the United Kingdom, and closing the gap with Australia) and Canadian researchers lead the world in international co-authorship of research papers.
At the graduate level, highly skilled students and researchers are applying their knowledge and honing their skills in labs, field studies and lecture halls from coast to coast to coast. They will be part of the solution to the talent crunch Canada faces today amid heated global competition. Canadian job vacancies hit more than one million last year, an all-time high. The US, the United Kingdom and Australia are facing the same challenge. The importance of attracting and retaining international scholars to Canada can’t be overstated.
While it is true that “moonshots” capture the imagination and can marshal resources and a sense of national purpose, for them to succeed you need a solid platform or launchpad.
It’s more than filling a gap in our pool of talent. Their experience and our open doors matter to our global perspective. International scholars allow us to see the world from another point of view, to take the best ideas from the best thinkers and apply them to problems before us.
Getting those great minds here takes more than a solid application and an airline ticket.
Our welcome must go beyond the impressive array of programs and supports offered on individual campuses. As a country, Canada must show international students they are welcome by ensuring a smooth and timely process from acquiring study permits and visas to working through the path to permanent residency. Even with an acceptance in hand, students will choose to go elsewhere if the process to get through our doors is more onerous than those of other destinations. While other nations such as the UK are making the process easier for skilled international students, Canada has become a difficult destination. Without a streamlined, competitive process, it will be our loss.
The travel routes run both ways, of course. We continue to encourage Canadian students to look beyond our borders and expand their experience, too. While students in France, for example, travel outside their borders for education at a rate of 33 percent, just 11 percent of Canadian students do the same. We need to ensure domestic students are also supported without barriers, improving accessibility for everyone. That means continued support for those who are financially disadvantaged, Indigenous students and students with disabilities.
Attracting the best talent is made easier when we have the resources to stay competitive. Well-resourced discovery research lets us imagine the possibilities and see what can be done not just in the next year but in the decades ahead.
The US is ramping up and so are other countries. We heard from US Ambassador to Canada David Cohen at Universities Canada’s Accelerate conference in February about his country’s commitment to the long game of research. Setting a cure for cancer as the nation’s next moonshot is one example of that. A commitment to the CHIPs and Science Act is another. Dramatic investment in research will fuel the transition to the green economy, and re-shore semiconductor research. The US has expressed interest in enhanced research collaboration with allies. Canada has to keep up. We saw in the early 1990s the cost of inaction, and it took over a decade to recover the talent we lost from the brain drain.
We need reliability. We need to be ready. We need a visionary plan for funding.
The Bouchard Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System announced in October and expected to report shortly gives us the opportunity to get it right. Among the considerations chair Frédéric Bouchard, dean of the faculty of arts and science and professor of philosophy at Université de Montréal, has suggested is the capacity for granting agencies to support interdisciplinary and international research projects. Other countries are doing or have done the same. Our ability to be part of the global community depends on a thoughtful, sustainable and secure source of research and innovation funding.
More than a moonshot – this is our platform – this is our launchpad.
We saw how the world’s scientific, social sciences, humanities and other communities responded to the first thrust of the COVID-19 pandemic. We stood on the shoulders of researchers from decades ago, Canadians among them, to develop a vaccine that would save lives.
It couldn’t have happened so quickly without the base of knowledge already in place. If you need an endorsement from the average Canadian on the value of that research, remember the long lines of people, sleeves rolled up, at pop-up and other health clinics desperate for the protection that research and innovation provided.
It took eight years after John F. Kennedy presented the goal of a moon landing to Congress for Neil Armstrong to set foot on it. It took eight days for Apollo 11 to travel to the moon and back. There will be a next big thing whether it is unexpected, or our greatest aspiration fulfilled. We have to be ready to move.
Canada must invest in talent and discovery research with action at all levels to attract and retain the best Canadian and international talent. And we must deepen ties among universities, international partners, communities and the private sector to support international collaboration.
We need to invest in people and ideas to reinforce Canada’s place in the world. Not only can we be ready. We must be.
David Johnston was the 28th Governor General of Canada and is former President of the University of Waterloo and Principal of McGill University. He is also the Founding Chair of the Rideau Hall Foundation and he was the first non-US citizen to be elected Chair of Harvard University’s board of overseers.
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