Hot! Our research universities can leap ahead – commentary
Published Monday, Jun. 25 2012.   Heather Munroe-Blum

In 2010, Congress asked a U.S. National Research Council committee for 10 measures to strengthen America’s top research universities, in order to secure the country’s prosperity and security. Our report was released this month, and while it was commissioned by Washington, it holds strategic lessons for Canada.

Canada is navigating well through the ongoing global economic crisis, providing a golden opportunity for us to strengthen our leadership on the world stage. We have a strong base: sound economic and social policies and a fine system of universities. Many of Canada’s investments in research, such as its infrastructure programs and the Canada Research Chairs, served as models for the U.S. NRC committee.

Nevertheless, Canada has problems that will waste our advantage if not addressed: Not enough of our universities rank internationally; we face low business investment in R&D; we tend to undervalue the humanities and social sciences, as well as basic science, which are key to innovation. We cannot be complacent: Growing economies (less affected by the economic downturn) as well as developed countries are making unprecedented investments in university innovation. In 2008 alone, China produced more PhD graduates than the United States.

To fully leverage our current investments and enhance our competitiveness, I present four lessons for Canada, drawing on the work of the NRC committee:

Commit to stable, effective funding for university-performed research and development. Instability is not the mother of innovation. As new researchers and graduate students make Canada their home, competition for money from Canada’s research granting councils has become fierce, particularly for basic research, which pays essential but (usually) longer-term dividends.

Ottawa’s important investments in university research have also, ironically, created a significant burden of unfunded costs for Canada’s most research-intensive universities. Each research dollar brings with it 50 to 70 cents of indirect costs: commercialization services, utilities, information technology and regulatory reviews, to name but a few. This creates a painful paradox. Every time a university wins federal research grants, funds must be diverted away from teaching or other core areas to cover these unfunded costs. To increase national competitiveness, the NRC’s report calls for full funding – direct and indirect – of federally awarded university research. Canada should follow suit.

Reduce regulatory burdens and increase accountability. We need accountability mechanisms that foster agility rather than stifle it. At federal and provincial levels, universities are staggering under administrative burdens as new government regulations and reporting requirements are layered onto old ones. Universities and governments must start afresh to establish streamlined reporting, and universities must commit to accessible demonstration of performance, maximizing the impact of public investment and achieving cost-effective operations, services and programs, consistent with their academic missions.

Enhance graduate education.Ottawa and many provincial governments have made intelligent investments in graduate education – most recently, the impressive federal Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program. But as the NRC’s report demonstrates, universities must increase quality and effectiveness of graduate education and deliver advanced graduates with high-quality supervision and cutting-edge experience and skills that will support high-impact roles in the academy and beyond. To do this, universities must reduce degree completion time, improve completion rates and align programs with newly emerging career opportunities and sectors.

Strengthen partnerships with all innovation stakeholders.Governments, universities and public- and private-sector organizations all play roles in innovation. More opportunities for professors and students to interact with public and private sectors, both at home and abroad, make graduates better prepared and make all sectors smarter, more innovative and more productive. Widespread and diverse internships linked to collaborative research also lead to excellent job opportunities for graduating students.

While other countries focus on their shaky economies, Canada has a window of opportunity to leap ahead. We need to act.

Heather Munroe-Blum is principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University. She is a member of the NRC committee that issued the report.

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