As the landscape of Canadian R&D changes, universities must address new challenges

Mark Mann
February 18, 2020

Canadian R&D is famously robust, thanks to strong support reaching back to the post-war period, which saw the emergence of largescale industrial R&D centers and the creation of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), with its specialized institutes. In the 1990s, Canada entered its golden years of university research. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) equipped universities with top-of-the-line scientific infrastructure, even as companies were offered tax relief to foster partnerships with universities, thereby sharing the training of future employees. Foundations and not-for-profit organizations have flourished as well, fuelling university research alongside direct financing by the three research councils of Canada and their provincial counterparts. But is this golden age of university research sustainable?

Economic outcomes

All indicators suggest Canadian university research is not yielding enough economic benefits. Year after year, OECD reports have highlighted this weakness. The ratio between university R&D expenditures and the commercialization of their research results is appalling, and yet little incentive has been provided, either by universities or governments, to make a difference. Instead, the emphasis has centered on maximizing research budgets, the size and equipment of the labs, and the number of students.

Student availability

Over the past decades, many university campuses have grown to the size of small cities, with considerable financial requirements: thousands of professors and employees, tens of thousands of students, and major real estate infrastructures. Universities have also diversified their sources of funding, with donations becoming a significant part. To maintain such a costly infrastructure, tuition fees are on the rise, particularly for international students, who are much sought after. Governments have encouraged universities to draw in more international students, in the hope that a portion will settle here after their studies and contribute to the economy. Finally, industrial contracts have taken a larger share of research funding. Such partnerships represent over a third of the research funding in some universities.

Twenty-six percent of Canadians have a university education, one of the highest ratios in the world, but this ratio could change. Spiking tuition fees — in some programs exceeding $50k per year — may create a self-regulating enrolment factor. Are universities catering to an elitist society able to afford such knowledge acquisition? Isn't that the antithesis of what public universities are supposed to be in a democratic society? Scholarships do indeed offset some of these effects; however, it is unlikely that young people will wish to start their life with such debt liabilities, especially when there are other opportunities in the market.

"Enterprise universities" are being created within large corporations or networks of industries to better train their personnel according to their standards. Such trainings are continually evolving and do not generally fit within university criteria or objectives. Salary appreciation for non-university trainings, such as technical or sales-related, could draw prospective students away from traditional university education.

Universities and colleges have seen signs of diploma abandonment from their students because of market opportunities and perhaps also a perception that diplomas are not as essential to climb the ladder. It is particularly true in the digital industries where entrepreneurs have succeeded without flamboyant degrees. Are we not witnessing new job pressures from digital developments? Here are just a few issues that may affect the structure and the fabric of our universities.

Research impact

The meaning of research "impact" suffers from some confusion: universities tend to measure impact in terms of citations in recognized publications, while governments look at the economic impact produced by a university's activities. As open access research and publication continue to be promoted, this trend will bring more pressure on researchers to divulge the bulk of their work, including novel breakthrough ideas that may become an inspiration for industry.

Impact assessment already includes student placements, industrial partnerships and exploitation of novel ideas. It should also include the adoption of changes in society, often referred to as social innovations. But comprehensive standards haven't yet been created to measure university output.

Administrative constraints

The absence of agreed measures for university output hinders the ability of university administrations and researchers to set clear objectives. Being a university professor is not without stress: you are expected to teach, propose research projects, obtain funding, recruit students, write publications and manage operations within a system that is traditionally hierarchical and not prone to simplicity. Administrative tasks take too much time, and support for them is rare. In addition, professors are solicited by media in their area of expertise, as well as by councils and committees in a peer review approach that is often compromised by conflicts of interest. Small surprise, then, that little time or energy is left over to commercialize research results. If they want more economic impact, universities and governments should reconsider the diversity of roles that university researchers can assume.


Multiple emerging issues are affecting the ability and motivations of students, researchers and industry to conduct R&D and bring its results to the marketplace. Are university administrations prepared to navigate such structural challenges? The time has come for us to reassess the roles and responsibilities of these ancestral organizations.


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