Address on Innovation at NRC TechX 2016
Ottawa, Ontario, Tuesday, November 22, 2016
What an honour to be invited to speak at NRC TechX during this, the council’s 100th anniversary year!
I’m very pleased to be here among such talented and dedicated people. You’re among the top project and program leaders in this great organization, and you’re here with a noble purpose in mind: to exchange with your colleagues and take your work to the next level.
Already, you’re achieving remarkable things, and I’m looking forward to learning more about your research today.
This is an important moment in both NRC’s history and in Canada’s.
It’s a time of significant milestones—NRC’s centennial this year, Canada’s sesquicentennial next year—and it’s a time to assess our progress and rededicate ourselves for the decades to come.
But to what should we rededicate ourselves?
That’s the question I want to attempt to answer today.
Let me start the best way I know how: with a story.
The story takes place in Ramallah, in the West Bank, at the Al-Shurooq School for Blind Children. I was there earlier this month, joined by a delegation of Canadians who came along on our visit to the Middle East.
It was a remarkable trip, and our visit to the Al-Shurooq School for Blind Children in particular is one I’ll never forget.
Because those children made me think of my mother, who was also blind.
It’s never easy being visually impaired, and in her day, there were fewer supports and even greater challenges for blind people.
And that was the case for children in the West Bank as well, until the Al-Shurooq school moved there in the mid-1990s.
Today, I’m very happy to report it’s a place of great warmth, caring and learning.
About 40 students attend classes, from kindergarten to grade five. They’re supported by talented, compassionate teachers.
And I’m pleased to say there’s a Canadian connection to the school—which is where all of you come in, and the kind of work you do.
The Canadian connection is in the provision of solar panels to the school.
Canada is funding an innovative solar project which is expected to reduce the school’s electricity costs by 65 to 75 per cent. This will result in savings of more than $10,000 per year which, as you can imagine, is a significant savings for a primary school in the West Bank.
So rather than spending money on electricity, the school will be able to take the savings from using solar panels and put those funds into other areas of its operations, all to support those kids.
It’s a great innovation story, and a concrete example of how research and innovation can make a real difference in peoples’ lives.
Let me ask: is anyone here working on a renewable energy project?
Keep it up! Your work matters!
All of your work matters.
The Al-Shurooq solar panel project is a wonderful answer to the question I posed earlier: “To what should we rededicate ourselves?”
The answer is: we should rededicate ourselves to research and innovation that helps people and makes our society better.
The importance of this kind of innovation is why earlier this year at Rideau Hall, we presented the first-ever Governor General’s Innovation Awards to six deserving recipients.
One of those recipients, a company named Kinova based in Boisbriand, Quebec, was nominated by the National Research Council. The award was presented to Kinova co-founder Charles Deguire for the development of an energy-efficient robotic arm. It is lightweight, quiet, unobtrusive and weather-resistant.
The JACO arm, as it is known, is offering more autonomy, control and range of motion to people with upper body mobility restrictions—in short, it is improving people’s lives.
That’s the kind of research and innovation Canada should be leading in, and that’s why we created these new awards.
As you well know, NRC researchers have been behind many groundbreaking discoveries and innovations throughout its history.
The cardiac pacemaker, the electric wheelchair, hardier strains of wheat, the Canadarm—I could go on, and besides, you’re well aware of this organization’s history.
Let me add just one more NRC achievement: direct association with no less than 13 Nobel Prize laureates!
In fact, next spring we’ll be launching a book called Ingenious which will highlight these and many other great Canadian innovations. The goal is to tell our innovation story, to help people see how creative we have been and to inspire Canadians to innovate further.
My point in highlighting these achievements is to remind you that the National Research Council is a nation-building organization by virtue of the fact it is has helped to make concrete improvements in peoples’ lives. And I want to call upon all of you to relish your role as builders of a smart and caring Canada as we enter this next phase of our history.
You are researchers, yes, but you are builders, too!
Both NRC and Canada are beginning new chapters in our respective stories. That’s the flip side of a major milestone such as your centennial or Canada’s 150th.
Like Janus, the ancient god of beginnings and endings after whom the month of January is named, we celebrate our past, and we look ahead to our future at the same time.
I want to briefly highlight two ways forward for NRC, based on the opportunities I have learned of in Canada and internationally.
The first relates to your activity here in Canada. In my view, there’s a strong appetite and need in this country for high-quality science and basic research, as well as for specific, mission-oriented research.
It’s not a matter of either/or, but rather both/and. Basic and applied research are mutually reinforcing when held in balance.
And what could be more appropriate than to seek such a balance here in Canada, where we know that compromise is fundamental not just to our prosperity, but to our very survival?
There is no shortage of grand Canadian challenges out there to be tackled, including industry-specific challenges where NRC can play a role. Underpinning these efforts, however, must be high-quality science—a necessity in any advanced society in today’s world.
NRC has the talent, the ability and the will to advance on both of these tracks simultaneously. I want to encourage you in these efforts. Let’s do world-class basic science within our labs, and let’s make sure those labs also have a window that faces onto Canada so that we can apply our research to helping the millions of Canadians we serve.
A second opportunity lies in the international arena.
Already, a number of NRC researchers are working on international science challenges, a fact which is simultaneously advancing global science and putting Canada on the map in terms of research recognition.
This is cause for celebration, and the opportunities are immense. This includes in international mission-oriented projects, in which fewer NRC researchers are currently involved. An opportunity exists for Canada to emerge as a global leader in this public innovation space.
Ask yourselves: what role can NRC play? I believe it can be a significant one.
So let me close by restating my call to serve on the occasion of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
We’re so fortunate to live in this great country. It’s not perfect, and it needs your insight and creativity to become smarter and more caring.
Canada needs you—the world needs you—so I call on you to rededicate yourselves to building a better country and world through research and innovation.