Fulbright celebration: Principal speaks on higher education and innovation

Canadian companies and governments need to invest more to make brain gains

By Tamarah Feder

Canada and the United States need to do more to compete with other nations when it comes to supporting research and innovation, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said yesterday in Boston where she helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of Fulbright Canada.

In a lecture entitled “Innovation and Higher Education: the Canada – U.S. Story,” the second in the Fulbright Canada’s Directing the Power of Human Knowledge Lecture Series, she bluntly pointed out that the two countries which had been innovation leaders in the past are now stagnating while other nations race ahead.

Munroe-Blum attributed this to dramatically swift and expansive growth in established and emerging economies in areas such as research and development and higher education over the last three decades.

Speaking of Canada in particular, Munroe-Blum cited a recent multinational comparative study conducted by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, of which she is a member, that showed Canadian companies are not investing as much as their global competitors in research and development. She called on all partners in Canada’s innovation system to work more closely together, quoting from the report that “stimulating innovation requires sustained collaboration and a systematic response by different individuals and institutions in the innovation system working together.” More broadly, all of North America needs an action plan.

“Today’s innovation is a global web in which people and ideas are in perpetual flux,” she said. “It is fundamentally collaborative, multidisciplinary and nimble.” And she emphasized the importance of creativity, knowledge flows and global connectedness.

Specifically, she urged that a back-to-basics approach is necessary for today’s students to become tomorrow’s innovators and global network builders. A critical requirement in their success is “cultural intelligence” – including multilingualism, world experience, experience and comfort with varied cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as empathy and authenticity. These qualities can be cultivated in international university programs – like Fulbright. Munroe-Blum emphasized that a vital part of staying ahead of the game in innovation requires funding agencies to recognize the role of studying technology and knowledge in fields like social sciences and humanities.

Munroe-Blum assured the audience that she remains optimistic – albeit impatient – about the promising future for Canadian and American researchers. To get there, she offered six recommendations to help create the “new prosperity” that will serve to advance our health and social well-being.

She called for Canada and the U.S. to raise university graduation rates above 45 per cent by addressing the top-10 barriers to obtaining a degree. Canada and the United States should follow the European lead and send post-graduate researchers into industries as a way of turning workplaces into incubators of innovation, she said.

Countries should improve the flow of knowledge by bringing universities, governments and industry together by releasing existing constraints. Clusters of innovations should be channeled into globally connected hubs built with large-scale, international and inter-sectoral collaborations. Both countries need to support increased collaboration in research to protect the quality of life in both – and beyond.

Munroe-Blum’s leading recommendation is for Canada and the U.S. to reinvest in basic and applied research in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the physical sciences and life sciences and engineering in a sustained and competitive fashion.

The Fulbright Foundation for Educational Exchange is a bi-national, non-governmental, non-profit organization with a mandate to identify the best and brightest minds in both countries and engage them in residential, academic and professional exchanges. The Foundation provides support to students, graduate students, scholars, teachers and independent researchers through a variety of programs that have enabled dozens of McGill students and professors to further their studies and research in leading American schools while bringing some of the sharpest minds from the U.S. onto Canadian campuses.