Canadian Foundation for Innovation - 10th Anniversary

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Remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council
And Secretary to the Cabinet

October 22, 2007
Ottawa, Ontario


Good evening everyone.  I am very pleased to have been asked to speak at this important occasion, and I thank you for the opportunity.

It is great to be here to join in the celebration of your 10th anniversary!

1997.  Quite a year.  Hong Kong was returned to China.  Dolly was cloned. Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.  The world mourned Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.

And here at home, the Government unveiled something called the Canada Foundation for Innovation - and the research landscape of the country was transformed. 

The budget speech of that year spoke of the CFI as, “investing in the future growth of our economy, making a down payment today for much greater reward tomorrow.” 

And the rewards have indeed been great, with support for research across a broad range of disciplines - from health care and the environment to science and engineering. In fact, since its creation, the CFI has committed $3.74 billion in support of more than 5,200 projects, at 129 research institutions, in 64 municipalities right across the country.

Since 2000 alone, CFI's investments have helped create 150 spin-off companies, generated 510 new intellectual property rights, developed or improved 564 public policies and programs, and helped launch 748 new or improved products, processes and services.

Equally impressive, the brain drain has been turned into the brain gain, with the availability of state-of-the-art facilities attracting over 8,000 new faculty members to Canadian universities - 1,700 of them from the United States alone.

I call that a good record.  John Evans calls it a good start.  By any measure, the CFI has been an outstanding success.

Throughout your 10 years, you have benefitted from truly superb leadership  - people like David Strangway and John Evans, and now Eliot Phillipson and Bill Leggett.  Visionaries in every sense of the word.  People who understand that the prerequisites for economic success, the raw materials of prosperity and the defining measurements of achievement are fundamentally different from what they were even 15 years ago. 

That we live in a world where the engine of growth is the human mind, building products, offering services and creating whole new industries on the strength of an idea.  That research and development are more critical than ever to pushing forward the frontiers of  knowledge.  And that we need to excel in commercializing that research - translating the ideas in our heads into products and services in the market.

They understood that the central question is no longer, “what worked in the past and how do we repeat it?”, but “what's necessary for the future and how do we create it?”.

Answering that question required a deliberate public policy decision to think differently about research - about what it requires and how we fund it.  It meant understanding the importance of partnerships, facilitating networks and encouraging collaboration.

In practical terms, it meant providing our researchers with the tools they need to do truly world-class research  - and do it here.  As Dr. Evans has pointed out, complex technological infrastructure has become a “vital and enabling advantage in research”.

He's  right.  We needed new tools for a new time.  And we needed to get them into the hands of the men and women whose ability to imagine, to think big, had far outstripped their ability to develop those ideas and put them to the test. 

C.D. Jackson once said that “great ideas need landing gear as well as wings.”  And that's what the CFI was all about - providing the means to bring imagination to ground with the right tools so that they could gain traction and move ahead.

Itself an innovation, CFI was to be unlike anything that had come before in scientific research. An independent corporation, at arm's length from government.  Its members drawn from the research community and the private sector.  Decisions about where to invest made by its members, not government.

A creative approach to public policy.  Indeed, public policy at its best.  Innovative.  Imaginative.  Intelligent.

In celebrating how much has been achieved, it's easy to forget how far we've come.  In 1997, support for research came primarily from the granting Councils and the Networks of Centres of Excellence. 

But they provided very little funding for research infrastructure - the equipment, laboratories, buildings and information technology that would enable scientists to conduct world-class research.

As a result, much of the existing equipment and infrastructure was an outdated legacy from the 1960's and ‘70's. In scientific and technological terms, ancient history.

The CFI stepped in to fill that gap by providing cutting edge infrastructure to support cutting edge research..  Meeting an immediate need and creating the foundation for a better future. 

Within a few short years, new labs and facilities began to appear. Exciting new research projects - projects that would not have been possible before -  were putting Canadian research on the map  - and instilling in our researchers a belief that our best could be the world's best; that we could stand among the elite. 

Generating an optimism that had been missing for years.  Creating the conditions for recruiting  - and repatriating - our finest minds.

This change in mind set is a critical point.  As Dr. Strangway has pointed out, the challenge of building a more innovative economy is about more than assembling equipment - it's about supporting people.  It's about investing in the conditions that will enable them to thrive.  Encouraging the most capable and competent.  Setting high standards - and high expectations.

And that's exactly what the CFI did - and does.  Bringing a rigour and discipline to research funding that was previously unknown - and long overdue. 

Using experts in the relevant fields for independent peer review, it required institutions to provide strategic plans in advance of applications for funding - something foreign to many universities at the time.

These plans included partnership arrangements, long-term sustainability plans, cost-effectiveness provisions and meaningful performance review mechanisms. Again, common expectations in business, but pretty radical ideas in universities!

The CFI was also innovative in how it used its funding formula.  By leveraging the funding it received, it gained the flexibility to negotiate multi-year funding arrangements with institutions - which in turn facilitated funding from other collaborators.  Expanding the pool of funds and enlarging the possibilities for success.

Ushering in a whole new era of partnerships on three levels: between researchers; between governments and funding agencies; and between researchers and the private sector. 

Creating, in other words, the kind of cooperation that can lead to truly groundbreaking innovations - and to the ability to commercialize them.  Across disciplines.  Across sectors.  Across the country.  Enabling researchers to work in sync, not in silos.

All of this progress, all of this innovation, all of this creativity, has changed the culture of research in Canada - and encouraged a degree of ambition that we had ceased to have - but need to have.

After all, when it comes to enhancing our global economic reach, we're not going to beat China or India or Brazil on wages.  We're going to do it through rising productivity, through higher-end products and services.

And how do we boost productivity?  Through what the OECD calls the “drivers of productivity growth” - human capital, physical capital and innovation. The very drivers that the CFI helps to foster and encourage.

Quite simply, CFI was, and remains, the right instrument for the times. 

Times that I'd suggest bring four imperatives.

First, that we make excellence our standard and our goal.  Simply being “average” just isn't good enough.  And conducting merely average science certainly isn't going to get the job done. Not when the best researchers can go where the best research is being done.

Second, we need to be focused.  We can't do everything , so we have to do a few things and do them superbly.

Third, we need to leverage resources - dividing the risk and multiplying the results. Government alone cannot provide all the funding.  Nor can universities.  Nor the private sector.  What's required is the kind of partnerships - and leverage - that the CFI has pioneered so successfully over the past 10 years.

Fourth, and finally, we need to be strategic in our approach to science and technology. Setting clear goals, mobilizing resources, measuring results and, crucially, commercializing ideas and getting them into the marketplace.

If we can do these four things - and do them well - I believe the future of science and technology in Canada is very bright.  Driving our economy.  Boosting productivity.  And raising our standard of living.

It has been said that you are young at any age, if you are planning for tomorrow.  By that standard, the CFI at 10 is still very young , still looking forward -  and not only imagining tomorrow, but building it.

Congratulations to everyone involved with the CFI, and my best wishes for another “decade of results through innovation.”

Thank you.