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Alejandro Adem
President - Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Collaboration and Science as Catalysts for Economic Growth

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Takeaways

  1. Educational programs that promote the role of science as an empowering economical force are crucial in helping Canadians understand the importance of science and engineering and how they can positively impact their lives. This awareness will help instill readiness for the coming changes in the economy.
  2. Collaborations among all sectors, including private industry, academia, and government, will be the key to helping Canada further advance its R&D efforts. Working in silos will only hinder progress, whereas coming together will allow for a streamlined strategy and knowledge-sharing.
  3. Canada has a strong brand internationally that puts us in a unique position to be leaders on key scientific issues. We should seize this opportunity and utilize the scientific knowledge and industrial strength we have to guide the course of the future economy.

Action

Industry needs to recognize the value and importance of research and science in bringing Canada forward. The private sector has a very important role to play – in fact, they are just as important as the federal and provincial governments in supporting and funding the mobilization of knowledge. With the private sector’s involvement in research and development, we can drastically speed up the process of innovation.


Where does Canada currently stand with respect to its international peers in terms of our research and development efforts?

Historically, there has not been a lot of sustained investment by the private sector into research and development. To make things worse, there is a big gravitational pull from our neighbors to the south. Canada is very good at creating start-ups but not so good at supporting them to get the next phase. This contrasts with countries like South Korea that have created global brands thanks to sustained support for research and innovation development. With that said, there are promising developments in Canada with the superclusters that government and industry are working on.

A lot of the scientific leadership in AI, quantum technology, cleantech, resource development and other fields is coming from Canada. Much of that is thanks to the investment and funding from organizations like NSERC. These kinds of investments in research and development at a national level help create a link between high-level, high quality research, and a very rapid application and adaptation to business.

“Investments in research and development at a national level help create a link between high-level, high quality research, and a very rapid application and adaptation to business.”

We can bemoan certain things about our system that are not perfect but the fact that we realize that we are not perfect is already a huge, important thing. We do have some excellent stories to tell.

Canada produces 3.8% of global scientific output. Scaling for population, we are around fifth in the world in terms of scientific output. When it comes to whether Canada has set aside enough money for science, obviously as a leader at NSERC I have some great ideas as to how further investments could generate higher impacts, but at the same time I am very much aware that we are stewards of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, our focus is more on what we can do with the funding we already have in order to maximize impact on the knowledge-based economy.


How must Canada be approaching the transition of our R&D into new technologies at this stage in our economic development? 

We live in a knowledge-based economy. That means successful commercialization has to start with a foundation of ideas, discovery and research, which are then mobilized across a spectrum of applications and innovations before going to market. Successful technological products, such as smartphones or ATMs, all went through this process.

NSERC understands that science and research are the ideas behind the progress we want to see, so we motivate and fund researchers to focus on deep, complex problems over an extended period of time. We also fund collaborations between academics, universities and companies to start developing ideas into products.

“Science and research are the ideas behind the progress we want to see, so we motivate and fund researchers to focus on deep, complex problems over an extended period of time.”

Looking at the current structure of the Canadian economy, we know that oil and coal will not be there forever, and there are many disruptive new technologies that are being developed. We need to be making the most of this time now to map out our plans for the future. If we allow the markets and good science to prevail, we will come up with a good solution.

I hope to see disruptive technologies help Canadians increase our productivity and the efficiency of our lives so that we can achieve more with less expenditure of resources. These technologies should be able to help us create a balance between our impact on the environment and our innovations. Technology can point us in the right direction in terms of our future economic growth and sustainability.


Do we need to rethink the way we view science’s role in the economy and in society at large?

I do not believe in top-down science. I believe in the coming together of pure scientists and applied scientists, the latter of whom I identify as business people and business leaders. In many parts of the world, a lot of the research now takes place in the private sector. This is very fertile ground and we need to think of ways where we can support that here in Canada and to then find ways of supporting the growth of that research into becoming a product, a company or something that will have an impact on society.

We need to view science and engineering as catalysts for economic growth. The way quantum research has been going in Canada excites me very much because it encompasses world-class fundamental research as well as technologies that are very impactful to society. What we discover about quantum technology will become very central to society as we go forward. Turnarounds would be sped up immensely, shortening the timeframe between innovation and invention. And the leadership position we have established in this field will benefit Canada’s economy.

“We must democratize science. Continued investments in science and innovation will help our population engage with the value of science and create a culture of science in Canada. This is not just a part of the larger strategic plan – it is our responsibility.”

We must democratize science. Continued investments in science and innovation will help our population engage with the value of science and create a culture of science in Canada. This is not just a part of the larger strategic plan – it is our responsibility. We need to promote the idea that science and engineering will empower and enable people for economic prosperity.

Science can answer the question of whether disruptive technologies will threaten humanity. In my own lifetime I have seen great progress in terms of people’s wealth. People now live much longer, and have much more access to comforts and technology and all sorts of things that before were much more complicated to access. We have always been moving in a positive direction and will continue to do so, we just need to work for it. 

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How can increased collaborative efforts among all sectors strengthen innovation in Canada?

There is a valuable effort to embed scientists in government departments because there is so much that goes on in government that touches upon science, but there is not always expertise present that should inform the policymaking. What we want is expertise that can go in both directions – academics who can take their knowledge to government but can also return to academia bringing the expertise of government. Similarly, we would like to see people from academia embedded in industry and people from industry embedded in government. These combinations will enrich Canada’s process and policies, creating an ecosystem where all points of view are taken into account and the old problem of working in silos can finally be solved. Each of the parties will bring their resources, whether they be intellectual or financial or other. 

“What we want is expertise that can go in both directions – academics who can take their knowledge to government but can also return to academia bringing the expertise of government. Similarly, we would like to see people from academia embedded in industry and people from industry embedded in government.”

Canada has been sliced and diced in many different directions, and so we need to bring coalitions together and have everyone focused on a particular strategy. Getting this kind of collaboration to function in an efficient way is what we need because we are competing with behemoths of the world, and when you are part of a team, you are so much stronger. 

Any kind of strategic plan and vision has to be inclusive and allow for diverse opinions so that all the different players know their voices are heard. There are certain systems in the world where one person can call all the shots, but in Canada we have to strive towards consensus building.

The New Frontiers in Research Fund is an exciting initiative to bring an interdisciplinary approach to Canadian innovation and large projects. The idea of getting researchers from different disciplines to focus on big problems together is intriguing, but also a challenge because in Canada we tend to work in silos. If successful, we will get to see engineers working with health scientists, and even people from the social sciences coming in to provide their perspective on the development of new technologies, which is very exciting. There is huge potential and a lot of excitement in the scientific community about how these projects are going to play out


What strengths must Canada leverage when shaping the future economy?

Canada is very attractive to people around the world because Canada values the contributions of its immigrants and allows them the opportunity to have an impact on society. I also want to include the Indigenous Peoples – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – and the distinct societies in Quebec. The government has worked hard at creating a flow of talented immigrants. The Canada brand is very strong right now and it is a great magnet for attracting young people from around the world.

On top of that, Canada is one of the ideal destinations for academic exchanges. We are constantly bringing academics and students from all over the world to create collaborative opportunities. The fact is, if you want to do science in Canada, you have to do it internationally. In the old days, there was this idea of self-reliance, but Canada is very much an international and collaborative player.

“We should be a bridge in both directions. We want to bring excellent young people around the world to Canada but we also want to send our young people out and give them a global experience and mindset.”

With that said, we should be a bridge in both directions. We want to bring excellent young people around the world to Canada but we also want to send our young people out and give them a global experience and mindset. We have a lot to learn from our friends in different countries where there are great technologies being developed. We are in a new era of economics where we all have to share what we know and cooperate.

Canada is respected as a country that is very fair, that makes decisions based on what we consider the greater goal – whether for society, other populations, or the world. We do not always get it right but we also acknowledge historical mistakes that were made and difficult situations that have arisen that we are working through. But in terms of knowledge mobilization on the international stage, I think Canada is a very trusted partner. The rest of the world looks to us as leaders in terms of determining which areas to focus on when it comes to science and innovation. With good leadership, integrity, and armed with facts, we can make a real difference.

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Alejandro Adem
President - Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Alejandro Adem is thepresident ofthe Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He is an accomplished researcher in the field of mathematics and a faculty member at theUniversity of British Columbia’s Department of Mathematics. Prior to his position at NSERC, he was the CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs Canada.


The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is the largest funder of scientific research in Canada. The agency works to promote innovation and scientific discovery by supporting students and academics in their pursuit of postsecondary research and training. NSERC has also established a number of partnership programs to foster collaborations between academics, colleges, and other sectors, including government and private industry.