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Eliabeth Cannon is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary

Government funding of university research is crucial to transforming Canada's energy sector and achieving the Group of Seven's new commitment to deeply cut emissions and decarbonize the global economy by 2100. With government support, scientists at research-intensive universities are advancing solutions for the sustainable development of unconventional hydrocarbon resources in ways that reduce emissions and mitigate other environmental impacts.

In a world with declining conventional oil reserves and growing energy demand, unconventional resources represent the future of fossil fuels in North America and likely globally. But if these resources are to be developed sustainably for the economic benefit of Canadians, environmental impacts must be significantly reduced.

Deriving greater yield from unconventional resources like the oil sands and heavy oil, while reducing the environmental footprint, is achievable through research and innovation – especially multidisciplinary collaboration by researchers at universities, polytechnic schools and colleges, in partnership with industry and government.

This research alliance has reduced carbon emissions by 30 per cent for every barrel of oil sands crude produced between 1990 and 2012. Oil sands projects now recycle 80 to 95 per cent of the water used for processing and use much less fresh water.

Now, the next generation of innovation is poised to make the leap from lab to pilot projects to commercialization. An example is work by Steven Bryant, the Canada Excellence Research Chair, in the field of materials engineering for unconventional oil reservoirs. He is using coated nanoparticles to make steam-driven recovery of in situ oil sands bitumen deposits less expensive and more energy efficient, dramatically reducing the environmental impact. These deposits – too deep to be mined from the surface – constitute 80 per cent of Canada's oil sands reserves and are the industry's future.

Dr. Bryant's work is part of the University of Calgary's energy research strategy, which, among other goals, aims to transform the energy sector toward zero carbon emissions. Our scientists and their collaborators are conducting research with the long-term goal of extracting energy while leaving carbon in the ground.

The university sector is the second-largest performer of research in Canada after the private sector. In 2012, universities performed almost 40 per cent of research and development activities in Canada, significantly more than in any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development country. They play a critical role in our innovation system.

Ottawa has made long-term investments in academic research and recently highlighted the significance of this work in the federal Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy. Priority research areas of energy and the environment are noted, with the goal of "making Canada a world leader in targeted research areas to create long-term economic advantages." Establishing the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to mobilize the country's best research, development and entrepreneurial expertise will allow researchers to focus on strategic areas that will create long-term economic advantages for Canada.

Continuing to propel Canadian research onto the international stage will accelerate research and the development of solutions for economically leaner, and environmentally greener, extraction and processing. This would advance the transformation to a decarbonized economy and could help gain social licence for major energy projects that expand market access. This bold and strategic initiative would signal to the world that Canada is a global leader in sustainable energy development.

University energy research is of national importance to the prosperity of all Canadians, and to a sustainable future for our resource development. Continued and increased government investment makes good sense, both economically and environmentally.