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Jin Lee

Canada must focus its research to maintain its prosperityOctober 15, 2019

Canada has a problem. We’re falling behind other small-population countries that pay more attention to innovation. Unless we catch up, our future prosperity is in jeopardy.

Small countries such as Finland, Singapore, Norway and Israel prosper most in the global economy.

They choose areas small enough for them to dominate internationally and reap significant rewards by supporting research that generates solutions that have real value and that other countries can’t match.

In Canada, Gennum Corp. chose specific niches flowing from its expertise in semiconductors, and in 15 years grabbed two-thirds of the total world market for its key products, all without any sales in Canada. The company spent 15 to 20 per cent of its revenue on R&D. It prospered until a California company bought it in 2012.

Canada can do the same but keep all the success to itself. Our leaders should be prepared to align our national values with a specific set of grand challenges – such as climate change, cancer, infectious disease and sustainable transportation – and focus our research on subsets of those, while there is still time.

We need to double down on work that delivers solutions to real-world problems and provides a higher return on research funding, especially since that funding is largely derived from tax revenues.

If you look at academic metrics, Canada does very well. But when it comes to commercialization, innovation and entrepreneurship, it is down near the bottom of the G20. As a result, we lose too many researchers and companies to other countries that do more to turn research into value.

There will always be a place for curiosity-driven “basic” or “pure” research, as it is called in the academic context, but the value of applied research – research designed to solve a particular problem – too often takes a back seat.

We argue that applied research is at least as valuable, and it is time to speak up and say this: Research should have a purpose.

The benefits of applied research go far beyond economic development. Research-driven solutions can drive broader forms of prosperity, including health, well-being and education. Strategic, purpose-driven research can improve GDP, but its value should also be apparent through indicators such as average life expectancy and progress against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Researchers, including students, faculty and research staff, should understand society’s needs and learn how to meet them.

One of the purposes of applied research is to do exactly that; find solutions that benefit people, drive commerce and in turn create taxes that pay for health care, social services and education.

Other small countries have achieved success disproportionate to their small populations by discovering and inventing products and methods the rest of the world wants, securing greater independence for their citizens in an increasingly volatile global economy.

Canada, a modern democracy with an excellent education infrastructure, should already be further ahead in maturing from an exporter of raw materials to a leading source of innovation.

Last year, the major universities in Canada spent about $7-billion on research, but the amount of licensing revenue their research earned was only about $80-million – barely 1 per cent of research spending. In the U.S., by comparison, licensing revenue represents about 5 per cent of research investment.

Canada starts from a position of economic strength. With only 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, it contributes more than 2 per cent of the world’s GDP.

For us to maintain our standard of living and to drive greater equality in society, though, we must focus on becoming a country of solutions, not only a country of resources.

There is no reason Canada shouldn’t be doing better at sheltering itself from unwelcome volatility and perpetual uncertainty. The solution is straightforward: develop knowledge that already resides in its universities into ideas to improve health and the quality of life, protect the environment and generate wealth.

Just as education is a social construct, we think research is also a social construct and the value of research should be defined not only by the researcher but also by the stakeholders who contribute to it.

Research is a podium we can own, and we should.

— This opinion piece was co-authored by Dean Ishwar K. Puri and Doug Barber, co-founder of Gennum Corporation and a Dean's Advisory Board member. It first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Oct. 13