There’s a disconnect between Canada’s capacity to innovate and our capacity to commercialize those innovations – or so the story goes.  It’s been repeated so often it’s become a mantra in certain circles, and it was hauled out again recently in an opinion piece that wondered how we can get Canada’s health research “out of the lab and into the market.” Their solution is always the same: reject investments in purely academic research in favour of market-driven research.

The thing is, that mantra is built on a myth.

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Fortunately, in their 2016 budget the government recognized that many high-profile Canadian innovations in health care were discovered by academic – not industrial – researchers. The budget takes much-needed action to reinvigorate Canada’s research and science base by investing in post-secondary research facilities and in basic discovery research funded through the granting councils.

The past decade saw a relative decrease in funding levels for university-based research, along with a number of other depredations of Canada’s research environment. So it will take some time for the wheels of innovation to begin turning again. Only when our academic institutions are adequately supported — both federally and provincially, when our students have opportunities to apply what they learn in the classrooms by working in state-of-the-art laboratories, and when new researchers and established senior researchers have their grant applications funded, will innovation in Canada truly flourish.

Budget 2016 injects more money into our Tri-Council research funding agencies – CIHR, NSERC, and SSHERC. It provides more direct financial support for post-secondary students. And it provides matching funds upgrading infrastructure at our universities, including our research laboratories.

Provincial governments are now under pressure to match the 50 percent infrastructure commitment that’s in the federal budget. Without that match, university infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. They must also step up and invest more heavily in their post-secondary portfolios by providing more seats, and more dollars per seat, for domestic students, rather than forcing universities to prop themselves up financially with international student tuitions.

We need our provincial governments to now follow the federal lead and inject resources into the institutions that train Canadian researchers and produce much of the most innovative research — both basic and applied, and that feed commercialization: our universities.

Research at universities is the foundation for innovation. Frederick Banting started thinking about insulin while preparing to lecture at Western University. Lap-Chee Tsui, discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene, and Frederick Tisdall, inventor of the infant cereal Pablum, were both at the Hospital for Sick Children, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto. It was Tsui’s basic genetics research at a university hospital that serendipitously revealed the key to understanding cystic fibrosis.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

University scientists engaged in basic discovery and applied research have tremendous latitude to be creative and innovative. Unlike their private industry counterparts, who have a mission to contribute to the company’s overall value, university basic researchers are not driven by the bottom line. Even so, countless university spin-off companies have brought products to market, products that were conceived as a result of university-based research.

Fortunately, Budget 2016 recognizes that capitalizing only on large corporate entities to innovate and commercialize falls short of what is needed to sustain a Canadian innovation culture.

Technology patents and spinoffs coming from university research have significant impacts on health, economic and social development. For example, Trillium Therapeutics, an immune-oncology company developing cancer treatments, is a spin-off started by University of Calgary basic researchers. Quadra Logic began in a basic research lab at UBC. Lungpacer Medical, Inc., a spin-off from Simon Fraser University, promises to revolutionize care for critically ill patients who require mechanical ventilation.

It is in our post-secondary institutions where innovation begins, where fresh ideas are created, and where inspiration and excitement – not the dollar – is the mother of invention.

Of course the academia-industry connection is important too, because industry helps basic researchers apply their ideas to marketable products. Several funding agencies already recognize this and offer collaborative grants. Corporations could help further this collaboration by helping to support co-ops for undergraduate students and internships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

But without basic research — most of which happens in universities — there would be no new discoveries to underpin commercial innovations. If all goes according to plan, Budget 2016 will be the catalyst for renewed scientific discovery and innovation in Canada.

Claire Cupples
Claire Cupples, Ph.D. is a member of the Faculty of Science at Simon Fraser University.
Peter C. Ruben
Peter C. Ruben, Ph.D. is a member of the Faculty of Science at Simon Fraser University.

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