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‘old wine in new bottles’ — University Affairs

Stakeholders from the political, research and entrepreneurial communities gathered in downtown Montreal on May 19 for the launch of the five-year Quebec Research and Innovation Strategy (SQRItwo).

The three keywords in the strategy’s 90-page document are invention, innovation and commercialization. The government’s focus is on increasing the productivity of Quebec companies through the development of synergies between the research sector and industry. The government plans to target future growth sectors it regards as strategic to addressing societal challenges, including digital technology (artificial intelligence, information and communications technology, and cybersecurity), quantum technology, aerospace, green technology and agriculture.

This second strategy is the result of a long consultation process. SQRItwo represents a combined investment of $7.5 billion. Including basic credits and additional funding, allocations to the Fonds du recherche du Québec have been increased by 13 per cent over the previous strategy, released in 2017. Over five years, an additional $205.3 million will be invested to support Fonds de recherche initiatives, $100 million to develop talent, and $15 million to develop a culture of science and innovation in the province.

The new research and innovation strategy has been fairly well received in the academic scientific community. In a joint letter, the heads of the institutions of the Université du Québec network welcomed the SQRItwo. They particularly appreciated the investment in linking universities and business sectors. For its part, Acfas hailed the focus on future researchers, fundamental research and social innovation.

To draw a meaningful portrait of the scope of some of these measures, University Affairs asked Dr. Christian Sarra-Bournet, executive director of the Institut quantique at Université de Sherbrooke; Dr. Catherine Beaudry, full professor at Polytechnique Montréal; and Mahdi Khelfaoui, science historian and professor at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, for their perspectives on the SQRItwo.

Scholarships not tied to inflation

While welcoming the additional investment in future researchers and scientific culture, they believe a number of points require clarification.

According to Dr. Sarra-Bournet, the investment in future researchers is still “insufficient” and fails to keep up with inflation. He also stresses the government has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to student research scholarships. “We would have liked more details about how the $100 million will be used. It would be better to revise existing scholarships upwards to account for inflation, rather than simply creating new scholarships,” he noted. He also doubts that increasing the core budgets of the Fonds de recherche will “move the needle.”

This issue was also mentioned by Drs. Beaudry and Khelfaoui, who characterized the scholarship section of the SQRItwo so wander Both remarked that it is still not known whether the government will increase funding or the number of scholarships. They are looking for answers. “Our students, especially those in the humanities, make starvation wages. They live under the poverty line. We need to give them enough to eat and succeed,” said Dr. Beaudry.

This echoes the message of more than 6,000 Canadian researchers and learned societies, who recently called for increased funding for scholarships awarded by the federal government and the three Fonds de recherche du Québec. In their petition, they mention that the federal government has not increased the value of its scholarships since 2003. To date, the Canadian government has ignored the request.

The rhetoric of innovation

To Dr. Khelfaoui, the SQRItwo is like “old wine in new bottles.” The document “makes no secret” of the fact that a convergence of the research and business sectors is at the core of the new strategy. However, this vision of research and innovation to increase productivity is virtually unchanged from 35 years ago, he said.

As a science historian, he recalls a similar policy put in place by the Liberal government under Robert Bourassa during the technological revolution of the 1980s. “They are just rehashing what was done in the past,” he noted, explaining that targeting innovation zones is similar to the approach of investing in industrial clusters and regional innovation systems used 10 or 20 years ago.

“The SQRI2 views innovation as a type of sequential process that takes an idea through the laboratory, prototyping and pre-commercialization stages before it ultimately receives an injection of venture capital.”

Addressing societal challenges through research and innovation “is a constant,” said Dr. Khelfaoui. The SQRItwo continues to target population aging, demographic growth and sustainable development, “but has slightly updated some issues, like climate change,” he added.

To Dr. Khelfaoui, the strategy’s novelty is in the “rhetoric inherent to the concept of innovation. Before this type of document, people talked more about technology innovation in companies, which was understood to mean developing or improving a product or service to commercialize it. Today, they talk about sustainable, societal and social innovation without really defining them.” He feels that these terms have been “sprinkled” through the report to “check all the right social and environmental boxes.”

The concept of innovation used several times in the document is also outdated and too linear, he said. “The SQRItwo views innovation as a type of sequential process that takes an idea through the laboratory, prototyping and pre-commercialization stages before it ultimately receives an injection of venture capital,” said Dr. Khelfaoui. Many studies have shown that “innovation is a much slower and more haphazard process that doesn’t have an ordered sequence,” and it is “naive” to think turning certain ideas into products only takes five years.

500 new ICT and engineering professors

On paper, the strategy should create the opportunity to hire 500 professors in the fields of engineering and communication technology.

Dr. Beaudry believes that hiring more university professors is a “good thing.” However, considering the “critical shortage of teachers,” more should also be hired in other fields. “You’d think we only needed engineers and ICT experts. If you want more cross-disciplinary research, you have to make sure faculty members are not overworked. Student enrollments are on the rise, not the opposite,” she said.

The government forecasts that the number of bachelor’s students in the related fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and computer science will grow to 9,000 within five years. Over the past five years, an average of 8,289 students were enrolled in those fields.

“You’d think we only needed engineers and ICT experts. If you want more cross-disciplinary research, you have to make sure faculty members are not overworked. Student enrollments are on the rise, not the opposite.”

Despite the fact that Institut quantique de Sherbrooke is located in a government-targeted innovation zone where industry, entrepreneurs and researchers build on their regional strengths to innovate together, certain aspects remain unclear. As his university he lays the groundwork for a new bachelor’s program in quantum technology, Dr. Sarra-Bournet hopes that teachers will be hired in his field. He feels that now is the time to train new talent and put quantum technology into action because the road to profitability can be long. “This type of development is extremely slow. The return on investment is not three or even five years.”

Dr. Sarra-Bournet said that the Institut can only be “pleased to have a new framework and understanding of the government’s chosen direction.” I added that the SQRItwo will facilitate work with partners like the Fonds de recherche du Québec by providing more clarity on future investments. Furthermore, in quantum technology, talent acquisition is currently “a global challenge,” he said. Investment to develop skills in Quebec, particularly in the field of quantum technology, “is music to the Institut’s ears.”

Impact on fundamental research

The SQRItwo provides for the creation of mechanisms “to ensure that the financial returns generated by government interventions to commercialize innovations are reinvested into fundamental research and the researchers of the future, driving the innovation cycle.” To achieve this, the government is adamant that “scientific activities must be linked to societal and market needs.”

According to Dr. Beaudry, these mechanisms should “provide universities with an incentive to commercialize more of the innovations they develop through research.” However, she wonders about the commercialization of university research. She believes that this limits research options, particularly for researchers working in fields where the technology is not suited for commercialization.

“When I read that ‘scientific activities must be linked to societal and market needs,’ my reaction is that it’s a very short-term vision. There is also a need to continue fundamental research and anticipate future needs. It will have to be monitored carefully,” she said.

In contrast, Dr. Khelfaoui is not worried about the sustainability of fundamental research in universities. The additional funding provided by the SQRItwo will increase the number of applied research projects and partnerships, but “that should not stop researchers from doing basic research. Remove the contrary,” he said.

While Dr. Sarra-Bournet believes it is important to continue funding fundamental research and scientific curiosity, he says the key is finding a happy medium. “A balance must be struck. We could have received more for fundamental research, but the government identified other issues related to productivity, innovation and commercialization. I have no problem with that.” He also spoke to the importance of funding research driven by scientific curiosity that is not linked to a return on investment. It is “essential” to society, he said.

Dr. Khelfaoui eagerly awaits the types of indicators the government will implement. “The innovation barometer is one of the novel concepts introduced by this document. I look forward to seeing how useful it will be. We’ll see if it will operate on concrete actions or will only serve to validate decisions in hindsight.”

All three researchers agree that it is too early to know how the strategy will be implemented. As Dr. Beaudry says, the SQRItwo is a good recipe, but the proof is in the pudding.

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