Canada can be a global innovation leader

This article was originally published December 1, 2014 in the Hill Times. International collaboration is critical to the advancement of science, and this article found that studies featuring international collaboration in their research were more likely to be published in journals with a higher impact and were more likely to be widely cited.

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Connecting people across international borders is an important component of a strategy to bring this about.

I met recently with Jonathan Bagger, the new director of TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for nuclear and particle physics. TRIUMF is becoming an innovation driver in nuclear medicine and materials science. It collaborates extensively, with 18 member universities across Canada, and a range of international partnerships. Dr. Bagger, well-known in the world of physics, was himself recruited from the United States after an international search.

A successful research enterprise requires the best and brightest lead researchers. A search for those leaders is necessarily international. International collaboration facilitates innovation and should be encouraged. We must focus on talent retention and recruitment and a commitment to repairing Canada’s damaged international reputation in the science, technology and innovation community.

Talent recruitment is not only required for the leadership of publicly-funded research and development. It is also critical in corporate R&D management. In multinational corporations, the decision of whether or not R&D is conducted in Canada is, in part, dependent on managers competing internally for global allocations of research funding. Moreover, multinationals usually groom top executives by cycling them through their international offices. All else being equal, the presence of top international talent, both in managerial positions and in research positions, will maximize R&D activity in Canada. That talent must be welcomed.

Tariffs have been eliminated over the years to encourage the import of advanced machinery and equipment—tools that make Canadian workers more productive. We can take the same view on facilitating the import of leadership in R&D.

One example I encountered was the case of an Asian corporation setting up a research laboratory in my riding. Foreign experts were needed to train Canadian researchers. Because they needed to stay for longer than six months, the company had to go through the Labour Market Opinion and Temporary Foreign Worker process. In this case, and perhaps generally, it might be a good idea to allow business visitors who are coming to Canada for the purpose of “training employees of a Canadian branch of a foreign company” to stay for longer than six months. This sort of accommodation might be part of a larger strategy to facilitate international collaborations, which improve the productivity of Canadian workers.

Funding and choosing priorities for funding is also a critical part of innovation policy. In applied research, private sector partners can be asked to vouch for the potential return on investment in research by risking their own capital. For basic research, the ability to participate in international collaborations is a way of vetting the relevance or strength of a research group. Indeed, the leading edge of science, the kind that is mostly likely to produce spin-off benefits for societies who support it, overwhelmingly involves international collaboration.

The new Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) is step in the right direction for public funding of Canadian R&D. We’re still waiting to hear how these funds will be disbursed, but a commitment of sustained, predictable funding to strengthen world-class science, technology and innovation in Canada is an important step towards developing the innovation ecosystem we need. I would go further and suggest that, beyond supporting world-class research, support should be extended to those research groups who have found and earned an important niche in international research collaborations. That idea extends to support for students. In fact it is often when Canadian students do their graduate or post-graduate research outside the country that they have their best opportunity to join international collaborations.

The value of collaboration between research groups located in different regions of Canada should also be recognized and encouraged.

I think there is a useful analogy to be made with trade policy where the urgency to conclude trade agreements is not only about selling made/grown/harvested/extracted-in-Canada products to other countries, but also in making sure that Canadian industry is able to participate in the manufacture of the highest value products and services, where crossing multiple borders before the final product is assembled is the norm. Achieving global excellence almost always means connecting people across international borders.

Reaping the benefits of international partnerships requires that Canadian scientists work in environments that encourage collaboration. I worry that the federal government’s heavy handed management of its own scientists and research capabilities may be hindering the development of important collaborations which Canadian scientists need in order to participate on the world stage.

In October of this year, more than 800 scientists from 32 different countries signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, asking him to “remove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”

The muzzling of federal scientists is hurting Canada’s reputation in science and technology research, and the international science community has chastised Canada’s scientific communications policy, saying that “Canada’s leadership in basic research, environmental, health, and other public science is in jeopardy.”

Canada can be a global innovation leader. Connecting people across international borders is an important component of a strategy to bring this about. Bringing in top research leadership from the international pool is like buying the best machinery in the world in order to improve the productivity of Canadian workers. A focus on talent retention and recruitment, coupled with a concerted effort to restore Canada’s science and technology reputation on the world stage, will help foster the international collaboration necessary for a truly innovative and global science and technology ecosystem.

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