Universities are often described as key supports of economic development. Which they undeniably are. But to consider them “supports” alone overlooks the potentially greater contribution universities can make as engines of economic growth and innovation, particularly at the regional level.
The recent federal budget seems to recognize this greater opportunity, providing investments that will help universities drive economic development and strengthen Canada’s position as a knowledge leader on the world stage. Funding for “superclusters” and Mitacs in particular will promote and encourage vital partnerships between academia and industry with potential benefits for all Canadians.
These are important steps in the right direction, but in the coming months and years we will need to see more of government, industry and higher education coming together to transform communities. With an immense opportunity before us, we have to do the work to make the most of it.
Canada’s universities are firmly committed to doing so. Here at the University of New Brunswick we’ve incubated more than 70 startups since 2013, enough for Startup Canada to pronounce us the most entrepreneurial university in Canada. And we didn’t do it alone. Our students and faculty partner with the community, industry, business leaders, entrepreneurs and outside experts to build hubs of innovation and technology on our campus.
Connected to their communities
Today’s universities are deeply involved in their communities. This collaboration with local partners on a wide variety of projects helps stimulate cities and communities with new jobs, and new industries.
At UNB, the entrepreneurial efforts of our students and faculty have added more than $1.2 billion to our province’s economy. That includes $48 million in income from UNB-affiliated start-ups and spin-offs in 2013-2014 alone, equivalent to more than 1,000 jobs.
The benefits are more than economic. For example, the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre is a combination teaching environment, research facility, and health clinic. Focused on caring for the chronically ill, the centre has treated thousands of low-income and disadvantaged patients since 2002.
These kinds of local, regional impacts are scalable up to the national level with the right support.
Embracing the economic advantage
The government has allocated up to $950 million over the next five years for industry-led superclusters: groups of companies, academics and researchers taking multidisciplinary approaches to innovation with the goal of accelerating growth. The funding will focus on advanced technologies and forward-thinking subsectors such as artificial intelligence, clean technology and bio-sciences where Canada can have a major impact domestically and globally.
We at UNB can attest to the efficacy of this kind of clustering approach. We’ve already found major success with a recent project exploring smart grids in the province’s power infrastructure. Our researchers are working with NB Power, Siemens Canada and Emera Power to create a visionary new smart grid connected to the Internet of Things. We’ve even started working with IBM to focus on security for the grid (Fredericton is home to the global arm of IBM’s cyber security divisions, some might be surprised to learn).
Budget 2017’s major $221 million investment in work-integrated learning through Mitacs will support 10,000 spots for Canadian grad students in work-related placements. This program is enormously important because it provides a conduit for grad students to channel knowledge out of universities into the private sector and, for those who end up making careers in academia afterward, allows them to bring networks of industry contacts back with them. Canada needs all students, across disciplines, to have access to work-integrated learning.
With the investment in Mitacs and $117 million earmarked for attracting top international talent to our universities, we’re looking at a budget that values new ways of thinking about economic development — with universities, faculty, students and industry partners taking leading roles. I hope it is just the beginning.
So what’s next?
On April 10, the Fundamental Science Review released its recommendations for transformative reinvestment in Canada’s research ecosystem. This is a significant opportunity to redesign how Canada supports discovery research and knowledge creation, across all fields of study, to drive innovation and prosperity.
We must seize this moment and regain our global footing in investments in basic research. We need to ensure sustained support for world-leading research infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Such bold and visionary investment, combined with the priorities funded in Budget 2017, has the potential to vastly increase universities’ capacity to transform the economies of communities and regions across the country.
Economic growth is no longer the sole responsibility of the private sector. Budget 2017 seems to recognize this — that universities also have a role to play. We now have the innovation-focused budget we need, and the road map to build our research and innovation capacity. It’s up to us now to build on these investments and do more to create productive partnerships, unlock talent, drive innovation and build prosperity in communities across Canada.
Dr. Eddy Campbell is president and vice-chancellor of the University of New Brunswick.