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Canada and Israel: Natural Partners in Research and Innovation

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Zero Creatives via Getty Images
Zero Creatives via Getty Images

This week, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) -- which represents 97 institutions across the country -- is hosting an innovation dialogue in Ottawa. Focusing on Israel and Germany as case studies, the conference brings together leading thinkers from all three countries to share knowledge and best practices in the fields of innovation, research, and technology. In so doing, the AUCC deserves immense credit for looking beyond the horizon to strengthen Canadian higher education and, in turn, a sector that will prove crucial for Canada's future economic vitality.

The need for excellence in research and innovation is obvious. The next generation of Canadians will be stewards of an economy largely driven by knowledge, advanced skills, and rapidly evolving technology. This is all the more crucial in a globalized marketplace of products and ideas. It is no overstatement to say that the health of our economic fundamentals in the coming years -- from employment to trade to capital -- will increasingly depend on our ability to maintain one of the world's most talented, diverse, and vibrant tech sectors.

What may be less obvious, however, is the reason why the AUCC chose to highlight Israel as a source of best practices. Israel -- the sole liberal democracy in the Middle East -- is a relatively small country both in terms of population (about the same as Quebec) and geography (smaller than Vancouver Island). Despite these factors, and the challenges that come with living in a region wracked with instability, Israel has become what some analysts have called the world's "start-up nation."

One look at the data paints a compelling picture. In terms of venture capital and tech start-ups per capita, Israelis are second to none. As a proportion of GDP, Israelis can claim the world title for having the highest rate of R&D spending. Israel is likewise home to some of the highest per capita rates of PhDs, engineers, research papers, and patents. A wide range of tech giants -- from Google and Yahoo, to Microsoft and Intel -- have set up major research centres in Israel, which is believed to have the world's highest concentration of tech firms outside Silicon Valley. Whether voice mail, instant messaging, or even the chip in your laptop, chances are that much of technology you use on a daily basis was invented or built in Israel.

As investment guru Warren Buffett once remarked: "If you're going to the Middle East to look for oil, you can skip Israel. If you're looking for brains, look no further."

Observers have assigned various reasons for this phenomenon, some of which were summarized by The Economist in 2012:

Israelis innovate because they have to. The land is arid, so they excel at water and agricultural technology. They have little oil, so they furrow their brows to find alternatives. They are surrounded by enemies, so their military technology is superb and creates lucrative spin-offs, especially in communications. The relationships forged during military service foster frenetic networking in civilian life. A flood of immigrants in the 1990s gave national brainpower a mighty boost. The results are the envy of almost everyone outside Silicon Valley.

All of this is true, as is the fact that Israelis have a social mindset conducive to entrepreneurship. Israelis are known for valuing risk-taking, vibrant debate, and those who challenge the status quo. In Israel, unsuccessful business ventures and research initiatives are not looked down upon as failures, but rather as learning experiences.

That said, these observations overlook the central role played by Israel's universities and research institutes, which are among the most innovative in the world. Increasingly, Canadian universities -- including Dalhousie, McGill, Queen's, the University of Toronto, and UBC, to name just a few -- are partnering with Israeli universities for joint research, academic exchanges, and other collaborative programs. It was in this context that the AUCC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its Israeli counterpart (the Association of University Heads, Israel) to formally strengthening the natural relationship between academics in both countries.

Indeed, higher education is a clear example of how collaboration holds inestimable mutual benefits. From Canada's perspective, there is much we can learn from Israel's commercialization process, which transforms ideas in the lab into products in the marketplace with remarkable efficiency (and in turn reinvests significant revenue in further research). From the perspective of the "start-up nation", Israelis have shown an interest in Canada's approach to research infrastructure - a testament to the reputation of Canada's universities in supporting academic excellence.

The Canada-Israel relationship is often only viewed through the lens of politics, which unfortunately obscures the remarkable bonds being formed between Canadians and Israelis at the institutional and grassroots levels. As the admirable work of the AUCC has shown, there is much we can learn from one another. All the more so given that, for Canadians and Israelis alike, open-mindedness and higher education are more than simply matters of economic necessity. They are nothing less than core values that define our respective societies.