This piece is one of a series of high-profile Canadians commenting on the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's Top 10 reasons Canadian competitiveness is dropping.
Indira Samarasekera is a lady of steel, in more ways than one. In 1974, she became the first female mechanical engineer in her native Sri Lanka, then went on to do a master’s in materials engineering in California and a PhD at the University of British Columbia. Using mathematical models to find defects in steel led her to consulting gigs with steel makers around the globe and, in 2000, the role of vice-president of research at UBC. Five years later, the University of Alberta lured her to Edmonton. Since taking over as president, Dr. Samarasekera has focused relentlessly on research and development, raising $1.4-billion in funding for world-class research facilities like the National Institute for Nanotechnology and the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, and enticing world-renowned researchers to Edmonton, a town better known for its massive mall than its elite academics. We talked to Dr. Samarasekera about how to spur research and innovation in her adopted country.
How does Canada lag other nations when it comes to research and development?
If you look at how much Canada invests in R&D as a percentage of GDP, we are below middling. Leading countries like Sweden and Israel are investing 3 or 4 per cent. And we are around 2 per cent. A particular problem is business expenditures on R&D – they’re below 1 per cent. Many countries that are successful are in the 2-per-cent region, and their businesses do more of the R&D than the public sector. The Canadian government has invested over the past two years in universities, and the universities have been very successful in generating knowledge. Unfortunately, the translation of that knowledge into industry has been less than stellar, and that is partly due to a lack of venture capital and a lack of management to make these start-ups successful. So our innovation ecosystem is not functioning well, and I think we have to address that at a systemic level.
How do we do that?
Canada produces an insufficient number of science and engineering graduates, as a percentage of our overall graduation rates, compared to other, more successful countries. We do not produce enough Canadian PhDs in engineering or science relative to other countries. So we need to address the education gap. Second, I think we need to further invest in extremely high-quality basic research. Canada does not have enough of the top 1 per cent of breakthroughs in the world, and for that you need to provide competitive funding to the very best researchers. I don’t think ours are competitively funded. And then you have to create systems to allow these breakthrough ideas to be commercialized by industry. It’s not researchers who commercialize these ideas – it’s got to be business. We simply don’t have that bridge between universities and industry to take advantage of these ideas, and we don’t have the entrepreneurial capacity we need.
Tell me a bit about what you’re doing at the University of Alberta to drive R&D.
For the past 30 or 40 years, the University of Alberta has not only educated the engineers, the scientists and the business majors who go to work in the oil-and-gas industry, but we’ve also partnered with industry to uncover technologies and knowledge that would improve the sector. We have researchers who’ve been at the frontier of understanding the fundamental science behind how bitumen is removed from sand, how you can reduce the environmental impact, how you can reduce the energy required for extraction. So the faculty of engineering has 16 or so industry research chairs, where individuals are working in partnership with industry. On the other hand, we have also been very active in areas where we can create new industries. For example, we have a computer science department that’s one of the leaders in machine learning. In the medical sciences field, we have Lorne Tyrrell, who worked with [drug company] GlaxoWellcome to develop a hepatitis B drug that’s now used around the world. More recently, we recruited Michael Houghton, who discovered the hepatitis C virus while he was working for a big biotech company in the U.S. We attracted him to Canada through the Canada Excellence in Research Chair program, and he and his colleagues are working on a human vaccine for hep C that hopefully will be in clinical trials in 2017.