Op-ed published in Research Money September 21, 2012
By Daniel Woolf
Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University
Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s Standing Advisory Committee on International Relations
New and returning students have unpacked their things and settled back into campus life here at Queen’s University, but many graduate students have been here all summer, working alongside faculty researchers on a variety of projects. The research endeavour never sleeps.
In Canada, we’re doing well in terms of research achievements. Canadian research teams have elevated our status as a world leader in areas of expertise such as information and communications technology, health education and environmental stewardship. But we need to push further to compete in today’s highly competitive, multi-disciplinary, trillion-dollar global research industry. Our contemporaries are already focusing their resources and attention to compete in this market.
Take a look at Brazil, projected to become the fifth-largest economy over the next few years. Already, it has 5.4 million university students and produces more PhDs than Canada. Other parts of the world have become the planet’s economic drivers. In fewer than two decades, more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP will come from Asia.
A culture of collaboration among top world talent has already become both the norm and the necessity. In Canada, some 40 percent of today’s university faculty earned their first or highest degree in another country, and 30 percent of Canada Research Chairs have been recruited from abroad. Top research talents are collaborating at a record level to leverage their combined data, research and knowledge. Close to 50 percent of Canada’s research papers have co-authors from other countries – twice the rate of 15 years ago and double the world average. Now we must step up our momentum to keep pace with the changing context of global research.
The shift toward international partnerships comes as traditional world powers cope with difficult fiscal realities. The United States’ slower-than-anticipated recovery and the European Union’s ongoing economic fragility have allowed Brazil, China and India to seize the lead. In this climate of change, what remains constant is the collective global recognition that university research, as a key investment, drives both short- and long-term economic growth. Over the past decade, our competitors have been pouring considerable resources into all sectors of research.
The Royal Society of London estimates the number of researchers, globally, at seven million. In our research-driven global economy, the new challengers – with their booming populations – are very serious about research and economic growth.
As I, and others, have stated elsewhere, Canada is facing fundamental choices. Economic, social and technological revolutions are underway throughout the world. We will confront significant economic, health, and labour market challenges as a result of shifting demographics in the decades ahead. By 2030, the proportion of the Canadian population that is over the age of 65 will double, while the working age population (ages 25-64) will grow by only eight percent. To offset these differences and remain competitive in the global marketplace, we must use our considerable research assets to drive innovation and become more productive.
There are already clear results from global collaborations, and more will follow. Working as teammates, our international partnerships on pandemic research and planning mean we’ll also combat the spread of infectious diseases with greater insight and speed. Collaboration in the face of major environmental shifts and surging world populations will ensure better planetary resource management.
For example, Queen’s University partners with Fudan University in Shanghai and the Southwest University of China to offer the Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology. Students from both countries do field study on aquatic environments and ecosystems along the Yangtze River in the vicinity of the Three Gorges Dam Project in China, and in the St. Lawrence River and Frontenac Arch regions of Eastern Ontario.
Moreover, Colin Funk, Canada Research Chair in Molecular, Cellular and Physiological Medicine at Queen’s, is the only Canadian scientist working with an international consortium of 39 investigators from 18 institutions and four countries to personalize drug therapy for the most common medications consumed worldwide, with the goal of reducing the risk of heart attacks, heart failure and strokes.
These examples show Canada has top talent to bring to the table. But if we expect others to view Canada as an attractive partner, we must commit to R&D as an investment priority, and make this commitment well-known across the globe. Competition is fierce. Our international colleagues seeking collaboration on highly complex issues will naturally pursue the most readily available resources, talent and investment.
As our competitors surge forward, Canada must commit more in R&D investment, particularly on the private sector side. Either we demonstrate comparable commitment, or potential collaborators will take their business elsewhere: we then run the further risk of Canadian researchers moving outside Canada.
To build prosperity at home, our international competitors must also be our allies. Competition and collaboration now go hand-in-hand. The result of doing both well will be increased innovation, productivity, social well-being, entrepreneurship and jobs for Canadians.