Inclusion is the path to excellence in Canadian research and innovation

Canada has a well-earned reputation for excellence in scientific research. Our country is producing 3.8% of the world’s research output. Relative to a country’s population, Canada is the world’s fifth most productive nation. Canadians are also regarded as strong international research collaborators. In a survey of top-cited researchers, where participants were asked to identify top-five countries in their fields, Canada ranks fourth, after the US, the UK, and Germany.

As these statistics show, Canada has performed well in international comparisons, relative to its population. As I begin my tenure as President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), I look to the diversity of our Canadian population as the most important resource that we can tap into in furthering Canada’s scientific contributions at home and internationally. Involving a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and cultures enriches our national research enterprise. It helps us produce scientific output that is relevant and useful to Canadians, and it allows us to make scientific contributions that are unique in the world.

I recognize that it is essential to secure stable funding to support the substantial current and emerging scientific talent across this country. Yet, I believe it is equally important that we seek to encourage and engage the full depth and breadth of talent within the next generation of scientists and engineers. We can elevate Canada’s scientific contributions by engaging previously underrepresented groups in scientific discovery and innovation.

In my previous role leading Mitacs, I was inspired by the idea that a young person who sets the right goals and puts in the work can aspire to find their place among the most successful emerging researchers and entrepreneurs. As a funder of research and training, NSERC is also well positioned to not only advance knowledge, but to help renew and invigorate the ranks of scientists and engineers in academia and more broadly.

When a young person sees a successful scientist or engineer who reflects their own gender, background and identity, that student can now better see their own pathway to becoming an accomplished scientist or engineer themselves. I have seen how inclusion can create such momentum towards greater participation and achievement. When my uncle, the mathematician, José Adem, was studying engineering and mathematics in Mexico City in the 1940s, a renowned professor from Princeton University, Solomon Lefschetz, visited the academic community there. He saw great potential in that underrepresented community and helped my uncle and other students to study at Princeton. That opportunity for a few students jump-started a stronger stream of mathematics talent in Mexico. For me, it’s a personal memory of a non-bureaucratic, almost magical, way in which talent emerging in a developing country connected with the cutting-edge research happening in the world.

Of course, that was a different era in science and academia. Today, in a world with high competition for exceptional talent, we need more formal mechanisms to achieve similar results on a wider scale. This is essential to NSERC’s mission, which is about connecting science to industry and other partners to improve the wellbeing of Canadians. We’re better able to adapt research in ways that improve local communities, environments and economies when the research community is reflective of the country and the people whose lives we aim to enhance.

We want research to be driven by excellence. Excellence is aligned with inclusion. The two can’t be separated. Inclusion is the only way to ensure that Canada is achieving the very best from and for all Canadians. There is no other country that has Canada’s diversity of people, geography and cultures. To meet Canada’s true potential as a nation of scientific achievement, to contribute our very best to human knowledge and its mobilization to achieve progress, we need to be engaging the full spectrum of talent with the potential to excel within the rich diversity of our dynamic population.