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the creativity gap

Dr. Arvind Gupta is the CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs, based at UBC.Brett Beadle

Innovation is constantly being cited as the cornerstone of Canada's economic and social future. Creativity, however, is a word that is spoken less often. Yet many experts, notably the education-reform champion Sir Ken Robinson, view nurturing creativity as the crucial ingredient in turning out the innovators of tomorrow.

How can universities – key players in the process – teach students to think critically and creatively? Arvind Gupta thinks he has the answer.

Dr. Gupta is a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia and chief executive and scientific director of Mitacs, a national government-funded research organization that runs an internship program for Canadian graduate and postdoctoral students. The program brings together companies with students who help the organizations solve their research challenges. Dr. Gupta also sat on the federally-appointed Jenkins task force that recently completed a review of federal spending on research and development programs headed by Open Text Corp. chairman Tom Jenkins.

Dr. Gupta spoke to The Globe and Mail about how universities strive to foster creativity in their students, how Mitacs plays a key role in the process.

Q. Do universities stifle creativity in students, or the opposite?

A. I think there's lots of challenges in an education system that's got to be very broad based and has to both train young people for existing jobs and for future jobs. We're trying to train people to be creative because they have to be very flexible in the kinds of jobs they might take on. We need to think about what the economy of the future will look like and what kinds of skills are easily transferable and there, at least I like to believe, we try very hard at universities to think about those kinds of issues.

Q. How can universities foster creativity and innovative thinking?

A. I'm a big believer in experiential learning. I think that in our university system we should engage society much more in the training of young people. I like co-op programs. I think they help give focus to more theoretical knowledge. At Mitacs we run programs where we get graduate students to go into society and look for emerging research challenges. We get young people talking to companies about what kinds of challenges these companies are seeing.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about how Mitacs does that?

A. For the more junior graduate students, Mitacs has staff that talk to companies about their challenges and then we bring a student and professor in to articulate clearly what the problem is. Then the student spends part of the time at the company. Seeing the problem for yourself is very different from having someone explain it to you. So we get the student to go to the company site, understand the problem first-hand, and then spend time tapping all the creative minds at the university on all the different possible ways to solve it. To me that's really the best way to stimulate creativity.

Part of the creativity process is learning how to sift through different ideas and figure out what are the best tactics to get to a solution. For more senior students and for people who have finished their PhDs, what we do is train them in how to do that process, how to go into companies and talk to them about the types of research challenges they have, and figure out which of those challenges might be the best one to work on. When my graduate students are working in my lab, they are essentially getting problems that are clean and well-defined. When you go out into society you get problems that are not so well-defined usually, and often they are also multidisciplinary.

Q. The Jenkins report noted that Canada has an innovation gap, which is partly due to an education gap. Canada has fewer people with advanced degrees than the United States and some other countries. What impact does this have on a country when it comes to innovation?

A. It has lots. At the Jenkins panel we believe that we need to get our companies the resources to grow because we know that larger companies do more research. We know larger companies are more innovative. We know the reason they got large was because they are more creative. One of the things we noticed is that we produce many fewer PhD students per capita than many other OECD countries. If you look at starting salaries of PhDs in Canada versus the U.S., starting salaries in the U.S. are 50 per cent higher than Canadian salaries. So we produce about half the rate of PhDs as Americans and they pay them more than we do. This to me is like the canary in the coal mine. We don't have this demand for R&D talent in Canada. And I think it goes back to this idea that Canadian firms are not putting enough resources into innovating to grow.

Q. So why should students invest the time and money to obtain graduate degrees if businesses don't recognize the value of them and aren't willing to reward them for it?

A. There is a chicken and egg problem here. We haven't actually thought carefully about a marketing strategy for [our graduate students.]Mitacs believes that there's a very good business case for companies to be hiring our graduate students. We'll do something close to 1,500 of these projects this year. And when [companies]see that these graduate students can actually work on the problems and crack them or give them good advice about them, that's the business case to hire someone like that. I think that's the part that we haven't really grappled with yet. In the Netherlands 50 per cent of graduate students will do a project like this. In most European countries it's between 30 and 50 per cent. In Canada it's something like 5 per cent. We haven't actually made a sophisticated business case to small- and medium-sized firms to start building their R&D groups and to see the power of having these kinds of people in their operation.

Q. Not only are Canadian businesses less likely to hire people with PhDs but they are also less likely to go to universities and say, "I have a problem; can you help me?"

A. In the U.S. and Europe we're seeing more of that. We're trying to set up Mitacs as an easy way for that to happen. Imagine you have a 20-person company and you've got this problem. How do you access a university? We want Mitacs to be the entry point. We want to help them figure out what the challenge is and who's the right person in Canada that can work with them on it.

Q. Does Mitacs focus exclusively on computer science and math?

A. Until about 2007, it was mainly mathematical sciences. I think the transformation for us was when we stopped thinking of it as us trying to send our students out as opposed to listening to what industry was saying the research problems are and then finding the right student. It kind of turned around how we looked at the world. This year 20 per cent of the research projects we do will be in the social sciences and humanities. I'm excited about that.

Q. How many students participate in Mitacs?

A. This year there will be about 1,200 or 1,300. My personal goal is 10,000, which would mean that roughly half of all graduate students in Canada would have done something like this in their training. It doesn't have to be all through Mitacs. We'd stimulate more demand for graduate students in society. I think that's a good thing because it means that industry is hiring more people with advanced degrees, which means they going to be more innovative, which is our end goal in this whole thing.

Special to The Globe and Mail