Vancouver Sun: Connecting Canada’s research and innovation agendas

The Trudeau government’s decision last month to name a federal science adviser should come as welcome news to anyone who supports principles like evidence-informed policy-making and broader initiatives that support Canada’s research and innovation sectors.

The appointment of Dr. Mona Nemer, a distinguished molecular geneticist, comes at a time when Ottawa is preparing to invest $950 million in a network of “super-clusters” while considering the far-ranging recommendations of Dr. David Naylor’s panel strengthening the foundations of Canadian research.

The science adviser’s mandate is far-ranging, but it includes an expectation that Nemer will counsel Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on science issues of importance to our country. The Naylor panel, in turn, calls for the creation of a National Advisory Council on research and innovation that would oversee the federal research and innovation agendas.

I agree with Naylor’s diagnosis of the federal research ecosystem, and hope the federal government will follow his advice on reversing those funding shortfalls that have accumulated in recent years, especially in investigator-led research and support for early career researchers and diversity. The panel’s call to enhance support for multi-disciplinary inquiry absolutely hits the mark: this is the way the world is moving.

What will be the relationship between high-profile initiatives, such as the super-cluster strategy, which has attracted bidding groups representing a range of science- and technology-intensive sectors, and a federal science policy that aims, as per Naylor’s recommendations, for a more cohesive approach?

And how will these parallel policy initiatives address the two-solitudes dilemma that has long dogged R&D policy, which is the entrenched and often artificial division between fundamental and applied scientific inquiry?

Those of us who have, or are engaged in, research careers know that many of our colleagues routinely move back and forth between these two polarities, between academe and industry, and across disciplines.

Through his work as director of the Clean Energy Research Centre, for instance, Walter Mérida, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of B.C., explores viable solutions to sustainable energy. But his work has included active collaborations with firms like Siemens and Fortis B.C.

Laval University’s Jacques Corbeil is one of three principal investigators involved in a multidisciplinary project to transform safety in blood-donation processing. The work involves research in artificial intelligence and data analytics. The project is truly trans-disciplinary and Corbeil was able to take advantage of working with industry partners, Waters and Phytronix. Then with private-sector funds in place, he turned to Mitacs to secure the rest of the funding.

The point here isn’t to offer proof by example, but rather to note that when scholars are able to transition between domains — and when policy and funding structures enable, as opposed to constrain, this kind of diversification of experience — the resulting process of inquiry can only become richer and more informed.

After all, the essence of scholarship and scientific research is the relentlessly iterative dynamic between hypothesizing, experimentation, critical scrutiny and innovation. For researchers in all disciplines, new data and new perspectives, or vantage points, are not only important, they’re determinative.

Mitacs, for its part, has sought to overcome those institutional and sectoral silos with internships and funding geared at connecting students, post-docs and academics to both public and private research organizations. The goal, ultimately, is to nurture an extended ecosystem of research and innovation.

So my unsolicited advice to the new science adviser is this: Bridges are vital to the process of making Canada’s sprawling research and innovation agenda more strategic and effective. Why? Because they enable the cross-pollinization that will spur discovery, economic growth and, ultimately, an improved quality of life.

By: Alejandro Adem

Alejandro Adem is CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a national, not-for profit organization that funds research and training at universities to foster innovation across all sectors. He is also Canada Research Chair at the University of B.C.