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Positioning Canada for global research leadership

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada president Mario Pinto (BSc '75, PhD '80) visited Queen’s University Friday to present the draft NSERC 2020 Strategic Plan. Dr. Pinto is travelling across Canada to solicit feedback about the proposed plan. He sat down with senior communications officer Mark Kerr to talk about the plan.

Mark Kerr: Tell us a bit more about yourself and your time at Queen’s?

Mario Pinto: My time at Queen’s was wonderful. I started off as an undergraduate student initially in mathematics and computing and then I changed into life sciences and then biochemistry. Eventually I graduated with a BSc in chemistry. I have fond memories of Queen’s because I met my wife in the Jock Harty Arena at the orientation registration on my first day at the university, and we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary. I also did my PhD at Queen’s. I was based at Queen’s but also worked at University of Toronto and Dalhousie. Queen’s was my home base because I had a particularly great supervisor, Dr. Walter Szarek, and we managed to do great things together.

MK: Since becoming NSERC president, you’ve made it a priority to travel across the country and get feedback on the NSERC 2020 Strategic Plan. What themes emerged from the extensive consultations?

MP: The first was the need to promote science culture in Canada. Until STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) becomes a household word in this country, I don’t believe we are going to be able to achieve the investment in research and innovation we desire.

The second theme deals with the diversified competitive research base across Canada. We have to admit that we have a highly diverse eco-system consisting of colleges, polytechnics, primarily undergraduate universities, highly intensive research universities, and medium research intensive universities. Each has a skill set so our plan is to leverage the respective strengths of those different sectors and take advantage of them.

Diversity also relates to populations. We have to do a much better job of attracting women and Aboriginal Canadians to sciences. This is an initiative I am particularly passionate about. We have to make career opportunities in STEM far more attractive to women and Aboriginal Canadians and provide mentoring so that they progress through the ranks at all levels of the education system.

The third theme has to do with recognizing and strengthening the dynamic interaction between foundational research and applied research activities. We have to admit that there is a dynamic interaction between the two and there isn’t a hand-off from discovery to innovation. Rather, discovery feeds into innovation and, in turn, innovation feeds back into discovery.

The final theme is “going global.” In Canada, we have strengths but there are also gaps. In order to innovate effectively, we have to partner with researchers in other countries, either bilaterally or multilaterally, and to take the best of complementary expertise in those different groups.

MK: How will NSERC go about achieving the vision laid out in this plan?

MP: As the leader in funding discovery research and one of the prime connectors between the different organizations working in the research and innovation space, we should be reaching out and building bridges to other organizations. That’s something I’ve already initiated where, once again, we will leverage our respective strengths to achieve our four goals. We currently fund 11,300 professors and 30,500 students and postdoctoral fellows. That represents a force of ambassadors. We have to speak with one voice and show support for the four objectives, be consistent in presenting those.  As the coordinating body NSERC can leverage these strengths to make a dramatic impact.

MK: What does the plan mean for Queen’s University and the researchers working at the institution?

MP: I think Queen’s is in an ideal position for success in general. It’s well recognized – you have world class researchers, you have excellent students, you have excellent faculty. You are well suited and you are well positioned to make a serious impact. Canadians do well on the world stage and we know that. I think it’s an understatement  that students from Queen’s are well equipped to take advantage of emerging opportunities, and respond to emerging challenges.

After all, this is why we are in the business of research and innovation.  That’s why I took up the challenge to be the president of NSERC because I think we have a responsibility to solve global challenges. I encourage students and faculty to respond to the web-based survey and give us their insight.

Visit the website to review and provide feedback on the NSERC 2020 plan.