University Research Key to Meeting Canada's Economic Ambitions

March 22, 2023

This piece was originally published in Policy Magazine.

President Joe Biden’s visit to Canada this week comes at a time when our neighbour and most valued trading partner is re-thinking economic policy in a way that has important implications for the Canadian economy and the contribution research universities make to its success.

“Modern supply-side economics,” as described by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, prescribes a new and active role for the US government in shaping economic and social outcomes through investment in infrastructure, human capital and research as a means to drive productivity and economic equality in the transition to a low-carbon economy. To that end, the Biden administration has signed into law hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending to support climate science, bolster high tech manufacturing and train workers in high demand STEM fields. The CHIPS and Science Act signed into law last year, for example, invests $280 billion in new funding to aide in the US production of semi-conductors and workforce development. The Inflation Reduction Act provides billions more for clean energy.

Here at home, the Canadian government echoed similar themes in its last budget, with commitments to drive growth in strategic sectors and investments in talent development, green infrastructure and innovation. In a speech at the Brookings Institution last October, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland placed this approach at the center of a larger effort aimed at building economic resilience and cooperation between democratic governments shaken by the global financial crisis, COVID-19 and war in Europe.

Helping Canada meet these national economic ambitions is uniquely suited to our collective strengths. Canadian universities promote social and economic mobility. Our students are in high demand throughout the economy. And the research undertaken in our labs and communities generates enormous social and economic benefits across society, a fact underscored by the contribution that Canadian universities made to vaccine development and public health throughout the pandemic.

It is also the case that as governments in the US, Canada and elsewhere take a more active role in steering far-reaching and fundamental economic changes like the energy transition, the kind of research undertaken at universities is uniquely suited to the task of knowledge production and mobilization over longer time horizons, which are necessary to achieve these goals.

For example, at Simon Fraser University, breakthrough discoveries related to the use of plastics in energy conversion and storage—discoveries that are vital to clean energy technologies—took years of persistent inquiry and research. The same is true with the progress SFU researchers are making towards unlocking the power of quantum computing to advance fields as diverse as drug development, cyber-security and machine learning. Discoveries like these unfold over decades and require environments that can tolerate high levels of uncertainty. They also require stable, reliable funding.

Though Canada’s post-secondary research ecosystem is strong, realizing our national ambitions for clean and inclusive growth will require sustained investment in this kind of long-term discovery-oriented research, matching that of our partners and competitors. It also requires a strategy to translate those discoveries into marketable innovations, a task that has bedeviled Canadian policy makers and innovators for many years. Breakthrough discoveries that languish in labs are of no help to anyone.

Canada is uniquely positioned to take up this challenge. Public universities in Canada are an enormous economic and social asset to the country. For generations, they have been powerful engines of innovation, equality and upward mobility. Now, the economic shock of COVID-19, the climate crisis, war in Europe and global economic instability have combined to challenge long-held economic assumptions and highlight the role of research in helping to fulfill our national economic ambitions. At this pivot point in history, and with the backing of the Canadian government, universities across the country stand ready to meet the moment once again.

Dr. Joy Johnson is President and Vice-Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. Previously, she served as SFU’s Vice-President, Research and International and as Scientific Director for the Institute of Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.