David Strangway has been a prominent and influential voice in science policy Canada for more than four decades. A former president of three universities: Toronto, UBC and Quest in Squamish, BC, 81-year-old Strangway was also founding president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and played a major role in designing the Canada Research Chairs program.

Strangway’s beginnings have a touch of the exotic. Born in Canada, he grew up in the then Portuguese colony of Angola where his parents ran a mission hospital and attended high school in Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He still consults on science matters with the Angolan government.

After being awarded a PhD in physics in 1960 from the University of Toronto, Strangway taught at two universities in the United States before joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1970 where he was responsible for the geophysics aspects of the Apollo missions. Next came the U of T from 1973 to 1985, the last two years as president, followed by president of UBC from 1985 to 1997.

Then, at the age of 64, he took on the demanding role of CEO and president of CFI, operating with considerable policy finesse and irrepressible humour. Strangway left CFI in 2004 for the challenge of founding Quest, Canada’s first independent, secular, not-for-profit university. An officer of the Order of Canada, he is Quest’s chancellor emeritus.  

How do you see the state of scientific research in Canada today?

There is no doubt that there is a tough squeeze going on particularly with respect to science being done within government. As I look at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as I look at Natural Resources Canada, as I look at all these activities, there are really severe cuts taking place. However, it seems to me there is some attempt to try to reinforce the capacity of research and development in the country but that takes place outside of government, within universities and the private sector. 

Many reports have said that R&D in the private sector in Canada lags far behind private-sector R&D in other comparable countries. Do you see that as an issue?

Certainly, but I see that as an issue that is much more attributable to government than people would generally realize. Moving research outside of government — not just to universities — but moving it into the private sector has been a really important aspect of building US capacity in the private sector. It’s what I call smart procurement. 

Much of the private sector emphasis in Canada is not on manufacturing but on exploitation of natural resources. Will smart procurement address that issue?

That’s the attempt. And it’s not just my thinking. There are explicit observations in the 2011 Jenkins report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action) that the opportunity to do smart procurement will be very high in the forthcoming massive expenditures on Canada’s military. So building ships, or building airplanes or building parts for airplanes or whatever it is we finally end up doing, there are going to be billions and billions of dollars expended in Canada’s private sector. And the question in my mind is, how are they going to make sure that a portion of that is being set aside so that the research for the next generation [of equipment] is done. 

Do you see any evidence that we’re back to a “brain drain” in the sense that promising young researchers look at the situation in Canada and say, “I don’t think there’s a future here for me.”

The “brain drain” conversation stopped once the CFI and the Canada Research Chairs got going. I haven’t heard that we’re into a brain drain problem of any major proportions yet. Yes, we’re losing some good people I’m sure but I think we’re still attracting and keeping some of the best. The Canada Research Chairs had an enormous impact on the universities. What most people haven’t talked about is that those Chairs were allocated to the universities in proportion to the research grants received from the granting councils. So they were reinforcements of excellence. The whole intention was to give a tool to the universities in order to build upon the excellence that was already there. 

That raises the question of whether we already have two classes of universities that are treated differently by governments — the research-intensive U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities and then all the rest. Is that healthy? 

The beauty of what we’ve got is that it isn’t making any definition [of elite] but it is allowing the strong to become stronger and allowing the weaker to become a little stronger than they were before. So everyone is moving up — a rising tide. Canada has an opportunity to raise the tide even further and if we could do that maybe we could get some universities into the top ranking globally. We don’t have any universities in the top 20 in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities and we have only four in the top 100. As good as we think we are, that’s pretty sad.

Why would someone with all your background in research want to found a liberal arts undergraduate college like Quest that doesn’t have a research component of any particular size?

When you look at the interesting issues of the day they don’t have much relationship to the departmental structures in universities. In the world we’re living in today, you cannot be a fully educated person unless you’ve had a good exposure to science, humanities and social sciences. We wanted to get faculty members and students crossing every conceivable boundary. In the first two years students take 16 courses, half of which are science and math focused and the other half are social sciences and humanities focused. And they all take all of those courses. So they graduate with a bachelor of arts and science.

Are there any other aspects of the research environment in Canada on which you’d like to comment?

I would love the government to say that every major procurement goes through a filter that looks at what it is doing to help build Canada’s R&D and S&T capacity. Whether it’s Arctic activities or offshore activities, there is so much we can do if we can decide, as government, that we wanted to move in these kinds of directions. It doesn’t take a lot of new money; it takes a rethink of how you spend the money that you’re spending.