University of Calgary president and vice-chancellor Elizabeth Cannon, who also chairs Universities Canada, is helping nurture closer ties between the scientific community and Ottawa’s elected MPs. 

When Elizabeth Cannon joined the engineering faculty at the University of Calgary in 1991 she doubled the number of women professors — from one to two. Her gender trail-blazing continued as dean of the Schulich School of Engineering and, since July 2010, as the university’s president and vice-chancellor, now in her second term.

 The 56-year-old Cannon holds a PhD in geomatics engineering from Calgary and her research into Global Positioning Systems has led to technology commercializations around the world. Already a passionate advocate for the university, for Calgary and for women in engineering, Cannon took on a new advocacy role in October 2015 as chair of the board of directors of Universities Canada, formerly the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Her inaugural speech showcased five new commitments by the 97 member universities to strengthen ties to the private sector, government and non-profits as well as providing students with enriched learning and real-life skills. Cannon also said that Universities Canada would provide all MPs with a solid orientation on higher education, research and innovation. In addition she promised that universities would strengthen their role “as convenors of meaningful dialogue and places of new thinking on issues of importance to Canadians by cultivating leaders and third-party champions across the country.”

How would you rate the general health of science and technology in Canada today?

On some measures we’re doing pretty well. In the report of the Council of Canadian Academies there were some positive signals about public interest and appreciation for science and technology. We’re certainly hearing that from the new Liberal government about the use of science and evidence-based decision making. But if you start to peel away some of the layers and you look at things like uptake of PhD graduates into the economy, into industry for example, or support to our federal research funding agencies  when you adjust for inflation, we’re not really keeping up with our peer countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There are other areas of concern that will be very important to address, not the least of which is industry’s investment in research and innovation. 

The 2014 report from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) said we were falling behind our global competitors in key performance indicators in business innovation. The trend line was down and no strategies to remedy this seemed to be working. 

I think it’s not one silver bullet that’s going to fix this issue, which is highly complex. And frankly there may not be one solution that works for the entire country. We know the level of educational attainment of managers in this country lags behind the United States. The uptake of PhDs in this country lags behind our peer countries. If you’re not bringing in the most highly educated — those with the exposure to the leading aspects of their disciplines — if they’re not going in to help drive the economy and society forward, you’re never going to be leading edge in terms of innovation and productivity overall. 

Of the 338 MPs in the new Parliament, 28 have first degrees of some sort in science, engineering or the life sciences. But interestingly only six of those 28 are in engineering. It doesn’t seem that Parliament has the right complexion to hear your argument for a well-rounded approach. 

As an engineer I don’t see a lot of my colleagues stepping into politics. Part of it may be other opportunities we have or just the nature of the training we go through doesn’t necessarily lead you, unfortunately, to more of the public policy or elected offices. I’m delighted that our new Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan not only has a science-based background but an academic background. She’s very credible when she speaks about the importance of science (and I’m using that word very broadly) in evidence-based decision making. That was a huge signal for our community. 

Will evidence-based decision making make decision making any easier?

I’m not sure that’s actually going to be the case. You can’t just put the evidence out there. As a community we have to ensure there is good evidence. The question is how it’s going to be used. To me, leadership has to have the political courage to use that evidence to make sometimes tough but right decisions for the country. I hope by being grounded in an evidence-based approach the trust in our government, the credibility in approaches and decision making will be enhanced so that the public will become accustomed to a culture of using evidence to make the right decisions. 

Do you expect engineers to play a bigger role than they have so far in this sort of thing?

As engineers — sometimes we call ourselves the “silent profession” — we’re not necessarily as active as we could or should be on some large public policy issues or societal challenges. Perhaps we have tended towards an attitude of “well, the facts will speak for themselves” but it’s what you do with the facts, how they’re communicated and how they’re used to make evidence-based decisions that’s really going to be the test of a community in the long term. So I hope engineers do play an increasingly important role in these dialogues as other professions, other disciplines and other communities have for a long time. 

What’s being done at U of C to combat the legacy of engineering as the “silent profession,” to convince engineers they should be more engaged with public policy? 

Canada will stand out through not only the quality of engineering education that we have — which is very, very highly visible on the world stage – but the ability of our engineers to go beyond the technology. What engineers in Canada have done, but can do more of, is ensuring that they leverage their great engineering rigour for more leadership. So our engineering school has a very strong focus on leadership. We call it Going Beyond Engineering. We nurture that, we have leadership programs for our students, leadership coaching, we invest in extracurricular activities for our students to get involved in clubs teams and international travel to help students develop outside the classroom. To me, this is as important as inside the classroom. These are all helping nurture students not only for their academic programs but their personal development to give them the skills and the confidence to stand up and be leaders.