This op-ed was published in Policy Magazine.
Since the dawn of this century and the fourth industrial revolution, trends toward interdisciplinarity, inter-institutional collaboration and academic-industry technology transfer have underscored universities’ status as a knowledge network. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated those trends in a way that can also make universities indispensable to Canada’s innovation economy.
Every technological revolution society has witnessed was preceded by a major global crisis, and each was driven by major public investments. In each case, the distribution of economic power changed.
As we consider what technological shifts will transform our society following massive post-COVID investments, we must look at further developing and nurturing a culture of innovation in Canada. To start, we need to do a better job of celebrating our successes and ensuring Canadians are proud of new businesses, proud to be the first in a sector, or leaders in a given field. Young people have always been the vanguard of cultural change, so we can turn to colleges and universities as environments with great potential to fuel and reinforce this culture
A stronger innovation culture could motivate more companies to invest in research and development (R&D). Countries considered world champions in innovation invest more than three per cent of their GDP in R&D each year. In Canada, businesses are investing less and less. During the past 10 years, they have reduced their investments by about $1 billion. In 2018 in Canada, investment in R&D amounted to 1.6 per cent of GDP and the share funded by businesses was 42.6 per cent. By comparison, the share of R&D investment by French companies is 56 per cent, German companies 66 per cent and American companies 62 per cent.
Beyond the need to invest more in business innovation to stimulate a resilient and robust post-COVID economy, it may be necessary to consider whether fiscal tools such as tax credits, Canada’s primary methods for encouraging business investment, are actually delivering the expected benefits. Germany, Israel and Sweden, for example, mobilize greater business participation in innovation through targeted projects with specific missions and direct assistance.
Our allies are leaning toward a vision of a post-COVID economy and a world that are more connected (digitally and internationally), more sustainable (socially and environmentally) and more inclusive.
US President Joe Biden announced plans to spend $250 billion on the US research enterprise in coming years to help rebuild, create jobs and spur innovation. And, Horizon Europe, the European Commission’s ambitious funding program for research and innovation, presents unprecedented opportunities for collaboration in research and innovation. Canada must be ready.
We need to invest to generate the next wave of disruptive innovation, here. The risk-takers, the curious, the problem solvers, will take us where we never imagined possible. Imagine producing 3D-printed homes and vehicles or developing personalized drugs and treatments or producing energy at home from our waste. All indications are that we’ll see those innovations in the next 10 to 15 years.
In terms of knowledge, the ability of universities to carry out their research, to make discoveries leading to the development of new technologies, and to train the people who will be able to develop burgeoning sectors, is essential for realizing innovation’s benefits.
We must also consider investment in fundamental research—the research that will help us lead the next great wave of transformative innovation. Given our world’s rate of change, we can expect that in the next 15 years, on a global scale, we will make more discoveries than we have since the dawn of humanity. What will Canada’s role be in that?
As we start to consider life post-pandemic, we know we will have to work hard to rebuild our economy and make tough investment choices—choices that will require some risk-taking to increase the economic, social and environmental value of every job in Canada.
The digital shift will structurally affect all sectors in Canada. The contribution of universities in this regard will ensure a faster and more effective transition. Knowledge transfer and collaboration with organizations will need to accelerate. The crisis has also highlighted weaknesses in critical value chains. Inevitably, these sectors will need to adapt. Universities will be the levers for a rapid recovery that focuses on future possibilities.
As we transform our economy, we must make it more sustainable. The fight against climate change cannot be ignored. Countries increasingly have to pay large bills associated with damages caused by climate change—costs borne by citizens. The commitment of Canadian universities and their researchers could help Canada develop the clean technologies and knowledge needed to mitigate the risks of damage and reduce greenhouse gases at the source. It is essential we consider the role we play when 30 per cent of the European Union’s massive recovery plan will be dedicated to fighting
We must also work on inclusion. Some sectors and groups have been more severely weakened by the effects of pandemic disruptions. As workers in many sectors transition to a new economy, we will need specific efforts to ensure accessibility. We will also need to continue graduating curious, skilled people ready to take on the latest world challenges.
Foreign investors will look at countries that have a skilled workforce and a strong research, development and innovation support capacity. The race for talent will be the gold rush of the 2020s. Without these highly skilled people, post-COVID prosperity will be unattainable. It is a distinctive Canadian pillar that deserves our full attention. More and better training, through and for R&D, is a requirement for a prosperous future.
It is also important to foster interdisciplinarity to better understand the ethical and social acceptability issues if we want to support the transitions ahead. Too often, significant projects perish because we underestimate the importance of the contribution of the social sciences and humanities. Innovation is about much more than technology. It is the result of human creativity, successful human relationships, and a willingness to address societal challenges.
What is the role of universities in this value-added socio-economic recovery? It is to build partnerships with their communities. In the context of innovation, those partnerships require the means to develop patents and innovations and to support research partnerships. Canadian universities now have COGNIT (www.cognit.ca), a platform to share valuable information to connect researchers with public and private organizations. This is a first—a unique and collective effort that highlights university expertise, research partnerships across the country and university patents available for licensing.
Governments must make investment choices that shape the future and support more partnerships among universities, businesses and communities. Knowledge and a skilled workforce are both essential assets for a strong and resilient national economy. These assets will strengthen our ability to create more value and quickly emerge from this crisis. It is imperative to support collaboration among government and communities, universities and businesses—as the United States, Israel, Sweden and Germany are doing. The end of the crisis is a unique opportunity to buttress bridges and rethink our models of collaboration.
We have the opportunity to train, innovate, transfer and transform for the benefit of all Canadians thanks to the network of Canada’s 96 diverse universities, serving students, advancing research and working with communities. We also have the opportunity to develop a real culture of innovation in Canada, to put forward the innovators, to nourish Canadian pride in being leaders, and to make our distinctive strengths known internationally.
Sophie D’Amours is Rector of Université Laval and Chair of the Board of Directors of Universities Canada.
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