On the cusp of a new era of innovation and discovery

How basic academic research leads to ground-breaking innovation

BURNABY, B.C./Troy Media/ – There’s a disconnect between Canada’s capacity to innovate and the capacity to commercialize those innovations – or so the story goes.

But the story couldn’t be more wrong.

The fallacy has been repeated so often it’s become a mantra in certain circles. And it was hauled out again in a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece that wondered how we can get Canada’s health research “out of the lab and into the market.”

The solution is always the same: reject investments in purely academic research in favour of market-driven research.

But that mantra is built on a myth.

Fortunately, in its 2016 budget the new Liberal 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 last decade saw a relative decrease in funding levels for university-based research, along with a number of other depredations to 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 both new researchers and established senior researchers have their grant applications funded, will innovation in Canada truly flourish.

The 2016 federal budget injects more money into the Tri-Council research funding agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – and provided more direct financial support for post-secondary students. It also provides matching funds for upgrading infrastructure at universities, including research laboratories.

Provincial governments are now under pressure to match the 50 per cent infrastructure commitment in the federal budget. If they don’t, university infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

Provincial governments must also 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, that feeds commercialization: our universities.

Research at universities is the foundation for innovation. Frederick Banting started thinking about insulin while preparing to lecture at the University of Western Ontario. 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 affiliated with the University of Toronto. It was Tsui’s basic genetics research that serendipitously revealed the key to understanding cystic fibrosis.

Technology patents and spinoffs 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 spinoff started by University of Calgary basic researchers. Quadra Logic began in a basic research lab at the University of British Columbia. Lungpacer Medical, Inc., a spinoff from Simon Fraser University, promises to revolutionize care for critically ill patients who require mechanical ventilation.

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

If all goes according to plan, Budget 2016 will be the catalyst for renewed scientific discovery and innovation in Canada.

– Peter Ruben, PhD, and Claire Cupples, PhD, are members of the Faculty of Science at Simon Fraser University.