More than any other activity that relies on government and private sector funding for its livelihood, research is the key to solving some of our biggest global challenges, from environmental degradation to food security – and yet, it’s most vulnerable to cutbacks.
This is especially worrisome to people like Universities Canada president Paul Davidson: he has witnessed Canada rise from obscurity during the 1990s to become a globally recognized research leader– only to see this status steadily diminish as politicians and corporate leaders turn their attention to other matters.
“We’re now ranked 24th in the world in terms of how much we spend on research compared to our gross domestic product,” he says. “A far cry from being 12th in 2001 – which in itself was a struggle to achieve.”
As the Canada Foundation for Innovation celebrates its 20th anniversary and a relatively new federal government settles in, Mr. Davidson cites several examples of how Canadian research is making an important impact.
The first is Queen’s University professor emeritus Arthur McDonald, who discovered that neutrinos (sub- atomic particles) from the sun don’t disappear on their way to Earth and instead change identities – meaning they have mass.
Dr. McDonald won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2015 for his work, and the new understanding of neutrinos will reportedly tell us about the far reaches of the universe and even the inner workings of our own sun.
Another example is the Canadian Light Source facility at the University of Saskatchewan, which most recently developed a new way to make medical isotopes – which addresses the need for a reliable supply in hospitals.
Meanwhile, the University of Saskatchewan recently undertook research to create a global resource for farmers seeking to develop new crop varieties at unprecedented speed and scale.
Mr. Davidson notes that while the previous government supported research, “other countries invested much more, and faster, hence our current standing.” However, he is hopeful the current leadership will take stock of the issue through a science review currently underway and to which Universities Canada has contributed.
“We need to invest in discovery research. We need a better circulation of ideas between public and private sectors,” he says.
“Even in our diminished state, Canada represents only 0.5 per cent on the world’s population but produces five per cent of the world’s cited research. We can’t let the advances we’ve made slide away.”
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