The federal government’s new plan to make the Novavax vaccine at a government-run facility in Montreal by the end of this year is seen by some as tragically late – though better late than never. Others counter that, alongside Canada being the only rich nation to claim doses from COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing initiative meant to help poor countries, a renewed focus on domestic production only aggravates the harmful phenomenon of vaccine nationalism.
Either way, the country’s partial economic and social paralysis is set drag on into 2022. The repeated missteps in obtaining vaccines and never-ending difficulties getting them into Canadians’ arms are just the latest example underlining how outdated our dominant paradigm of national security has become. But Canada is hardly alone.
Within 12 months, a relatively mild contagion — compared to the lethality of SARS or Ebola — has crippled the global economy and sown political division within societies nearly everywhere. Pandemics, climate breakdown, social polarization, surging distrust in facts and institutions, labour being replaced by automation, and gaping inequality – these are all emergent threats to social stability and economic well-being that traditional security approaches are ill-suited to endure. They are, however, issues which Canadian research centres are already actively addressing.
Ian Bremmer, head of political risk firm the Eurasia Group, has argued that national security in the 21st century is no longer rooted in factories of war and sheer military might. Rather, it stems from competencies in the areas of technology and cybersecurity, and on managing supply chains, rare earth mineral supplies, intellectual property, pharmaceuticals and labour protections. Adds Bremer, "When you think about all our institutions, both international and domestically, the fact is that today’s environment has changed a lot, but institutions have not."
Instead, what underpins security and prosperity now is public trust in government and the application of knowledge and data to drive technological innovation, power economic growth, ensure public health and reduce inequalities — both at home and abroad.
Here, Canada’s research centres could be key. They could also bolster a new era of Canadian soft power via technology transfers and engagement with developing nations around mitigating climate change, improving education, increasing food security and eliminating new diseases. By doing so, Canada could fill the middle-power, humanitarian void left after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismantled the U.K.’s globally admired and highly effective Department for International Development last June.
For instance: the University of British Columbia’s BioProducts Institute is unlocking the potential of organic compounds to solve climate and environmental challenges. The University of Alberta is advancing the field of nanotechnology. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto is arguably the world’s foremost voice pushing back against disinformation, cyber intrusion and digital surveillance.
Meanwhile, since 2018 the University of Manitoba has been a designated research hub for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6, working on ways to achieve universal access to clean water and sanitation, a problem the UN estimates one in three people suffer from worldwide.
These are only a few examples, among dozens that are ongoing across the country.
Enabled by a well-structured immigration system, Canada has also quietly become home to the world’s third-highest concentration of PhD-educated researchers specializing in artificial intelligence, and remains among the most desirable landing spots for talent in high-demand STEM fields.
Furthering Canadian research efforts, however, requires the political will to reverse flagging support for the country’s research-intensive universities. Government funding comprised 81 per cent of operating revenue for Canada’s colleges and universities in 1985, but has now dipped below 50 per cent.
Of course, any new financial support for these knowledge centres should come with a much more serious focus on commercialization than the Innovative Superclusters Initiative has done thus far.
Announced in 2017, this brainchild of the Trudeau government — a "made-in-Canada Silicon Valley" — was meant to create 50,000 new jobs and add $50 billion to Canada’s GDP by bringing together researchers, investors, government and the private sector. The goal was to foster collaboration on the development and commercialization of cutting-edge technologies in agriculture, advanced manufacturing, marine science and artificial intelligence.
Yet three years and $1 billion in spending later, reports indicate that the superclusters initiative has so far been underwhelming. However, academics involved in the initiative have cautioned against premature judgment of its effectiveness.
The pandemic has been a reckoning for governments, economies and societies worldwide. To achieve safety and prosperity in our new reality will require a massive rethink of what both of those mean in the 21st century. Thanks to its research centres, Canada is well positioned to help.
Kyle Hiebert is a research and policy analyst based in Winnipeg and the former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.