Research Makes Life
“Canada’s universities are full of people looking for ways to make things better”
BY KEVIN HALL
There has been much confusion and uncertainty about the future of Genome Canada since the federal government unveiled its budget. There was no new funding for the national granting agency, which supports a spectrum of research projects at universities and other institutions across the country.
A plethora of rumours, speculation and media reports followed. Worried scientists said they feared it meant the end of the agency and touted the importance of research. Government officials said there was no reason to be alarmed.
Whether Genome Canada’s future is really hanging in the balance remains unclear. But it has prompted many of us who are engaged in university research to do some important reflecting. We know the crucial role that research plays in Canada, both now and in the future, but do others? Have we done a good enough job of communicating the importance and value of intellectual innovation, and the difference it can make to Canadians and people throughout the world?
From the outside, universities may appear to some to be big, impersonal entities lacking any connection to the real world. Some may believe that pumping money into universities through agencies such as Genome Canada may result in little more than genetically modified ivy covering the walls.
But in reality, the discoveries and technology that have continually revolutionized the world have emerged from the labs of university researchers. And the advancements that will truly make a difference in the future are being tested and tried right now on our nation’s campuses.
Canada’s universities are idea factories. They’re places full of people looking for ways to make things better in just about any realm you can name — human health, the environment, the economy, our social lives, creativity and the arts.
Through innovative research and collaborations with government and business, our post-secondary institutions can help us solve real-world problems and improve the quality of people’s lives.
Forget ivory towers. Think networks. On Canada’s campuses, researchers are actively seeking ways to pool strengths and resources. Imagine a philosopher joining veterinarians and epidemiologists to discuss ecohealth solutions for emerging infectious diseases, climate change, food security and water quality. How about an artist helping to set up a design studio for mechanical engineers? Or plant scientists working with molecular and cellular biologists to turn crop plant wastes into everything from car parts and furniture to fuel, and using tobacco plants to produce “plantibodies” that can be used to treat human diseases such as cancer — a paradox if ever there was one.
Canadian scientists are also leading DNA bar-coding efforts meant to quickly and easily identify every creature on Earth, work that will pay off in our understanding of biodiversity and in improved human health. Imagine using your cellphone to make sure that shellfish on your dinner plate is what the menu promised, rather than some endangered species or something allergenic or toxic. Or how about using a similar instrument to read for pathogens in water from a town well? That’s the kind of research paid for by agencies such as Genome Canada — not research for its own sake but for ours.
On campus, we call it cross-disciplinary research and collaboration. And it mirrors the way the outside world works — complex but full of possibility.
Buildings and equipment are necessary for research, but they’re only shells without people. What’s going on inside those walls is brain building.
In Canada’s research labs, some of the world’s brightest minds have chosen to set up shop to tackle our most pressing problems. And in teaching labs and classrooms, universities are producing not just ideas but also another generation of highly trained people. It is these human brains — using the leverage of advanced research and investment in cutting-edge technology — that truly transform ideas and discoveries into value.
Indeed, there is no shortage of ways to underline the connections between university research and the so-called “real world” and the crucial role innovation has to play in Canada’s present and future. It’s an expensive enterprise, one that requires dollars and commitment from society. Government and industry support is critical.
Prof. Kevin Hall is U of G’s vice-president (research).