How Does Canada Foster World-Class Research?

Despite its small population and limited resources, Canada remains cutting-edge thanks to targeted funding in areas of scientific strength.

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Research is the engine that drives continued innovation. Whether it’s basic research, where commercial applications take a backseat to discovery and curiosity, or translational research that helps move discoveries to the market, these are the solutions that lead to the disruptive technologies that no one saw coming.

Despite having a small population and limited resources, Canada has world-class research programs, thanks in part to its strategic funding in areas where strength and depth are already well established. That’s the goal of its Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), a pool of government funding that supports programs at post-secondary institutions that are chosen by a panel of leaders from the academic and private sectors.

York University’s Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) program is one of the hubs funded by CFREF, and it builds on the university’s existing collaborations on everything from helping patients with brain injury navigate, to visual perception in outer space, to computer vision and visual displays.

“Canada is a small country; we don’t have vast resources like our neighbours to the south, and we need to decide where we want to invest strategically,” says virtual reality scientist Robert Allison. “CFREF allows Canada to do that in areas where Canada already has excellence. So it allows us to take something that we’re already very good at and bring it to the next level so that Canadians truly become world leaders in certain disciplines.”

“Government funding is critical to the scientific endeavour,” adds VISTA’s Associate Director Richard Wildes. “Both whether we’re talking about basic scientific questions, or bringing science out into the world, government funding is critical.”

The government is vital to this kind of research because they have to think further into the future than industry would to keep innovation, infrastructure, and experience on the cutting edge.

“To have applied research, we must have the fundamental knowledge,” says VISTA’s Scientific Director Doug Crawford. “If we don’t keep building up our basic knowledge through fundamental research, discovery-based research, that well would run dry eventually.”

VISTA also encourages collaborations within its members and with industry, helping accelerate the translation of their discoveries to the clinic or the market.

“One of the big challenges that we face is how to translate basic research into applications, ones that can be useful to patient populations who, in my field, experience memory loss,” explains neuroscientist Shayna Rosenbaum.

For neuroscientist Laurence Harris, the training opportunities are just as important as the infrastructure and scientific advancements. Financial support for students and postdoctoral fellows is what makes university research possible, and it keeps our workforce engaged and up to speed.

It’s all part of the cost of keeping pace with the rest of the world, and being the first to arrive opens doors for all Canadians.

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